Monday, September 29, 2008


Alongside our drive and garden, we are lucky enough to have a two-acre field that is part of our property. Just three years ago, we sank in this field a big, fat pond, twelve feet deep and some twenty feet long. We let the water mature for a year before transferring to it the fish that lived in the wildly overplanted and rather tired shallow pond that we had inherited much nearer the house. The fish loved their new home and have thrived. They’ve had lots of babies.

We installed an elaborate arrangement of bamboo canes to frustrate and bamboozle Ron, the heron who is a pretty frequent visitor. He has never succeeded in taking any of the named fish that enjoy the freedom of the pond, named because recognizable. There are many anonymous residents, probably a majority of them (in the nature of things) sports, and it is impossible to begrudge so majestic a hunter any haul from among those that he may make.

But I would be distressed if he managed to harpoon Big Bill Broonzy, the splendid carp with the bright blue patch on his head, who came to us from a pond that he had outgrown in Crouch End; or Chubby Checker, another large carp with a hatchwork marking pattern, a refugee from my partner’s sister’s pond in Bristol; or Orpheus, the always chirpy blue orfe who is the sole survivor of seven orfe who were resident in the old pond when we came here ten years ago.

And I wouldn’t want to lose Jane the white goldfish, whose life I once saved when she trapped herself by swallowing an anchored grass root at the pond’s edge and who is named for a Los Angelino whom we first met this year and now consider a friend; or Andi, the largest of our ghost koi, who is named for the old friend from Telaviv who made the introduction to Jane – Andi swears she doesn’t mind lending her name to the greediest of our pond dwellers.

Yesterday, Ron was there, the first time I’d seen him in some weeks. But also visiting was a wonderful creature, one whom David (who is an early riser, unlike me) had seen once or twice but whom I had yet to clap eyes on: a kingfisher. My heart leapt. We’ve seen hummingbirds feeding in the Caribbean, lionfish shoaling in the Red Sea and all manner of exotic birds and fish on either side of the Indian Ocean. But nothing beats a kingfisher.

Its iridescence – blue and green on the back and wings, orange on the chest – was dazzling, caught in sinking sunlight as he shot the length of the pond, then back again and then veered away to the hedgerow beyond. Unexpectedly, he flew back to the pond, as if not convinced that I was really a threat, as if there might still be a chance to snatch a comet that had caught his eye. Then he gave up, zipped back towards the hedge and then up and over the hawthorn branches. Ron was long gone by this time, big birds being much more cowardly than little ones.

I hugged myself over my luck. We are blessed every day with the birds who grace our feeders with their visits – every sort of finch and tit, dunnocks and treecreepers, wagtails and warblers, both spotted and green woodpeckers. Wrens and robins nest widely in our gardens. We see owls and all manner of falcons and hawks in and over our field and we are overflown twice daily by a honking flock of Canada geese. All this is of course not to count the less welcome birds, the pigeons and crows and, worst of all, the magpies that, I believe, are most responsible for the decline of sparrows and thrushes.

Today, both Ron and the kingfisher – shall I call him Gregor? – were there again. Ron indeed had brought Ronette, his better half, and, perhaps because of that, made himself scarce even more swiftly. The sighting of Gregor was also briefer but now that we are on his regular circuit we shall perhaps see more of him. I hope so. The odd lost goldfish/carp cross is a small price to pay for playing host to one of nature’s great glories.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


I make no bones about the fact that, when Ruth Kelly’s imminent departure from the cabinet was disclosed on Wednesday, my response could be encompassed in two words: “good riddance”. Kelly has been precious little asset. Her political touch and administrative competence have been much questioned. She is one of those ‘modern’ politicos – David Miliband is apt to be another – who seems to believe that to speak of “going forward” is to make a major policy statement. Most deplorably of all, her membership of the lunatic fringe group Opus Dei aligns her with fundamentalist supernatural views that are in direct conflict with much of the Labour government’s social programme. This was a grave embarrassment when fellow Roman Catholic sympathiser Tony Blair created for her the very Blairite post of Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. It was a job she held for 14 months before Gordon Brown gave her the transport portfolio.

It was quickly clear that, in purporting to represent “communities”, Kelly could not square her brief with her own views about the gay community. As Peter Tatchell remarked on her appointment, “Tony Blair would never appoint someone to a race equality post who had a lukewarm record of opposing racism”. Before her transfer from the Education brief that she had handled so poorly, Kelly had absented herself from twelve of the fourteen votes on issues concerning gay rights and had voted against adoption by same-sex couples. Happily the geriatric falangista and others of Kelly’s Opus Dei cohorts seem not to have a policy on transport.

All that being said, I have been outraged by the media coverage of Kelly’s political demise. She could hardly have been more categorical in her explanation of her departure. As she told reporters in successive sentences, it was “purely a decision taken for family reasons … absolutely and completely for family reasons”. It seems to me that the appropriate reaction for the media is to accept that as a categorical statement. Anything else and you should stop beating about the bush and call her a liar outright.

The BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg, reporting from the steps of the Manchester conference centre where the Labour party was gathered, asked rhetorically, “Could her action spur cabinet ministers into thinking about their jobs?” Well, Laura, of course it could because Gordon will have to appoint a new Secretary of State for Transport and is anyway widely claimed to be planning a reshuffle sooner rather than later. But if you mean “might they think about resigning for family reasons?” well, I suppose it depends on how young their respective children are.

Here is what the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, wrote in his blog on Wednesday: “The fact is, though, that Ruth Kelly has been profoundly worried about the direction of her party and has spoken with other cabinet ministers who were contemplating resigning too, to make their point. What this illustrates is that there is a big gap between talk behind the scenes and action”.

This is a “fact”, is it? Has Kelly aired her “profound” worry to Robinson personally or is this just a rumour in Westminster? And I take it that the ambiguity of the word “direction” is carefully chosen. It could mean the thrust of policy or it could mean the management of the party. Robinson leaves it for us to interpret. There are certainly areas of policy where there are differences of opinion in the government, as too within the opposition parties and across the country: ID cards, detention of terrorists, the future of troop deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, the imposition of a windfall tax on power companies. But generally, as I observed in the previous entry, the cabinet seems as ideologically like-minded as any I can recall over the last half-century. So what “point” would some of its members be making by resigning?

Who are the other cabinet ministers who were contemplating resignation? What are they waiting for? What is their game plan? I find all this sort of political gossip profoundly – if I may use Robinson’s weighty word – unsatisfactory. In his journalism, Robinson is very keen on hints and glosses. He is given to formulae such as “cabinet ministers say privately …”. What does that mean?

It seems to me that there are several possible readings of such a claim. If “privately” is taken literally, Robinson must mean that at least one minister is an old friend of his with whom he chats frequently as old friends do. In such circumstances, the minister(s) would surely expect confidences to be respected. Robinson is a disloyal friend to whom “privacy” means nothing.

More likely, Robinson means that he has had informal contact with ministers in the professional context of journalist and politicians – the opposite of private – and that he has been given information either off the record or on the record but on an unattributable basis. In the former instance, Robinson could still be considered to be betraying a confidence. Off the record is generally taken to mean that the information is not for conveying baldly to the public but to be understood as background to the journalist’s understanding of a wider picture.

Anonymously quotable information is a different ballgame altogether. It raises a number of important supplementary questions: what is the politician’s motive in putting this information into the public domain? how reliable is the information? is the journalist being used as a means to make mischief for somebody else? is it proper that, in this case, the BBC should be unwittingly inveigled into machinations that might be mere politicking rather than politics?

What is more, it raises important questions about the reporter’s own probity. Why is the reporter acceding to the politician’s gambit in throwing a stone into the pool? How sure can the reporter be that the information given is kosher and not some species of black propaganda? And, given that the story is run anonymously, what is to stop the reporter inventing a rumour supposedly given to him by a cabinet minister and creating a story of his own from nothing? You will say “his professionalism” will prevent that. But all reporters have agendas too. There is no reason why Labour should trust Nick Robinson, a former president of the Oxford University Conservative Association and a former national chairman of the Young Conservatives.

Robinson does not reveal his political history in his blog biog. Journalists – especially those in broadcasting who are expected to be more disinterested than their print equivalents – dread the exposure of such past activism. I vividly recall a BBC Election Night special in the 1960s wherein the anchor, Cliff Michelmore, handed over to Robin Day who was perched in the roof of the studio interviewing a succession of politicos. Michelmore lightly noted that Day had once stood as a Liberal candidate. Day leaned precariously over the barrier of his eyrie and, incandescent with rage, bawled “I asked for that not to be mentioned”. Thereafter both he and Michelmore comported themselves as if nothing untoward had occurred. But clearly Sir Robin (as he became) feared that such history might compromise his stance as an impartial tribune.

On The World at One, Nick Robinson gladly accepted Martha Kearney’s invitation to speculate on the details of the reshuffle that reporters – on no formal basis – presume to expect next week. What an idle exercise. If the speculation happens to be mostly accurate, Robinson will bask in imagined brilliance while the viewers yawn. If it is wide of the mark, he will present the reshuffle as a missed opportunity or “Gordon seeking to spring a surprise”. If there is no reshuffle, the predictions will be quietly forgotten. But all of it is a waste of valuable airtime.

The Guardian ran a good deal of “background” on the Kelly resignation, much of it contradictory – “one source said a junior number 10 official may have been indiscreet in the bars of the Labour conference” (the plural “bars” suggests drunk and indiscreet); “allies of the prime minister … [said] that the ‘toxic timing’ of the resignation was designed by Blairites to give the impression of ‘dirty tricks’ by no 10”; and so on.

Of course, when politicians gossip unguardedly to journalists, they only have themselves to blame if rabbits run and end up eating the crops that the gossips had meant to protect. I recently read John Hutton, James Purnell and Caroline Flint named among those who were plotting against Gordon Brown. Such reports reflect badly on the named from any point of view. If they are known plotters, the plotting is not subtle. If the claim is false, they should issue a statement refuting it – they should probably do that whether it is true or false. If they are briefing journalists unattributably, it will serve them right if the upshot is not part of the plan.

Were I Gordon Brown, I should revert to the tried and tested gambit of divide and rule. Sack Hutton: there are no votes in him. Hope he makes common cause on the back benches with Charles Clarke because the pair can easily be nullified by being characterised as Laurel and Hardy. Move Purnell sideways. His presence in the cabinet at all is a mystery to me. He shares with the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg the pasty look of someone who spends too long in front of his computer. I wouldn’t trust him with a boiled sweet. Send him to Northern Ireland. Evidently (and bewilderingly) Brown admires and wants to promote the current Northern Ireland Secretary, the millionaire Tory turncoat Shaun Woodward. The pair could swap jobs. Promote Flint to the cabinet. She already attends it often as Minister of State for Housing and Planning. She has form in education and health and she combined American literature and film studies as a student. It’s too soon to shift Andy Burnham from Culture but she could have the portfolio of John Denham – Innovation, Universities and Skills – and the admirable Denham could take the Transport brief. What’s she gonna do? Say “no thanks, I’d rather disappear into obscurity on the back benches”? In the end, most of these politicians are realists.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


It’s a pity that so few in the Westminster village evidently have much historical perspective. Almost every government of my lifetime has suffered, to some degree or other, the mid-term blues. Despite the catastrophe for Eden of the Suez Crisis in 1956, it took Labour another eight years to win a general election. Before the Falklands War, you would have got long odds on Thatcher gaining a second term. Labour was supposed to win the 1992 election right up to the count – indeed the BBC proclaimed Neil Kinnock prime minister on the basis of exit polls – but the Major government came back from the dead. In 2000, William Hague was thought for a time to be well placed to capitalise on Blair’s then unpopularity. As it turned out Hague was the first Tory leader since Austen Chamberlain not to become prime minister, his successor Iain Duncan Smith was the second and his successor Michael Howard the third. Conversely, I still can picture the double page spread in The Observer the Sunday before the Tories won in 1970: “The agony of Edward Heath” was its headline. Save in Zimbabwe, no election result is a foregone conclusion; no poll counts except the actual vote.

My point is that This Too Will Pass. For Labour backbenchers – both perpetual ones and those newly relegated from the front bench – to run around like recently beheaded chickens is the merest folly. How the government’s foes, from Cameron to Salmond, must rub their hands with glee. All the Tories need do is watch. Opposition could not be easier.

The media has decided that Labour cannot possibly win the next election, whether it comes in 2009 or 2010. Nobody notes that just a year ago, the picture was very different. In an ICM poll, the results of which were published on September 19th 2007, Labour was supported by 40% against the Conservatives’ 32% and 20% for the Liberal Democrats. Gordon Brown’s approval ratings among voters of all party allegiances was +32, David Cameron’s was +25 and Sir Menzies Campbell’s was –5; their respective ratings among their own party followers were +73, +25 and +48. Only a fool would propose to anticipate where such ratings will be in mid-September 2009.

Yet Labour MPs – not excluding, if so-called ‘private briefings’ given to journalists have any merit and I always doubt that they do, actual ministers – are queuing up to hurl their own careers and the prospects for their party onto the pyre by telling anyone who will listen that Gordon Brown has to go. And what, in god’s name, do they imagine will be gained by that? Who presently in the house, let alone the cabinet, has the charisma or the credibility to transform the government’s fortunes?

The sad fact that these hysterics cannot grasp is that the government’s present unpopularity rests largely on the economy’s downturn. If David Cameron or Tony Blair or Ming Campbell or Nick Clegg or Ann Widdecombe or Jade Goody or David Beckham were presently prime minister, the polls would still not favour the government. All the ministers who might remotely be likely to stand if there were a leadership contest know this. In the present circumstances, being in government is a bed of nails. Only a masochist would gladly take over at number 10.

Joan Ryan, who resigned as vice-chairman of the party at the end of last week, told a BBC reporter: “lots of people are saying, you know, we need now to have this debate”. What debate? David Davis resigned and prompted a by-election because he wanted a national debate on the eroding of civil freedoms. Did you miss that debate? So did I. There are certain individual policies – ID cards, detention of terror suspects – that do not command the full support of the Labour party and when they come before the house they are hotly and exhaustively debated. Otherwise, the cabinet is as united on policy as any since World War II.

So what is the debate about? Well of course it’s about personalities. On Any Questions this weekend, Tony Benn was gallantly arguing yet again that the debate ought to be about issues, not personalities. But the fact is that Benn’s argument was lost years ago. The media is not interested in issues or policy but ‘stars’ and, because the media is powerful, even professionals pay it heed and begin to believe what it says. The media has decided that Brown’s fall from grace is a good story. Consequently, Brown almost never gets any coverage, either broadcast or print, that does not begin from the premise that there is “more trouble” for the prime minister. If Brown slashed everyone’s taxes, took Britain out of the European Union and gave the electorate a referendum on, inter alia, capital punishment, ID cards, smoking in public places, immigration, troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and the weather in summer, the media would still find a way to present it as “trouble” for Brown.

His worst trouble is the inward-looking, easily swayed nature of politicians today. In his big speech at the party conference, the PM will need to make it clear that he isn’t stepping down this side of an election in any circumstances save unforeseen illness; that if backbenchers care to run their version of Sir Anthony Meyer against him (the so-articulate Joan Ryan perhaps) they are welcome to try but that she and they should expect to lose the whip; that nobody this side of the horizon has any better ideas about getting through the downturn and changing the leader will not change the ideas; that all this hysteria only makes the party look like an amateur rabble instead of a mature political movement; that the media is not the government’s friend and those feeding it tittle-tattle off the record do very much more harm than good and indeed give the media cover under which to make up stories and claim they reflect reality; that he has earned backbench loyalty by being the most successful Chancellor in a century and that he expects to be able to draw on that credit now that the going is tough.

Pace Mr Benn, let’s talk personalities for a moment. I agree with Tam Dalyell, father of the last house, that Tony Blair was the worst prime minister of our lifetime. I rejoiced that the Tories chose a Blair Mark II to lead them, believing that the electorate would have had enough of “pretty straight sort of guy” spin. I omitted to note that the electorate never went off Blair sufficiently to vote him out of office, though, had they been given a chance to do so in 2010, who knows what the result would have been? Cameron has played his first years in opposition exactly as Blair played his, even repeatedly accusing the prime minister of “dithering”, a charge that fitted John Major far better than it does Gordon Brown.

It was Blair’s plausibility as much as any other quality that stuck in my craw and Cameron strikes me the same. These guys are snake-oil salesmen: Blair was a lawyer, Cameron a career politico. Brown is, I believe, much more grounded in reality. His forte is not being ingratiating. But that’s a harder sell in a sound-bite culture. America will elect McCain (I now feel sure) because the American electorate always prefers the genial guy over the earnest guy: Reagan over Carter and Mondale, Clinton over Bush Sr and Dole, Bush Jr over Gore and Kerry. It doesn't matter much if the laid-back guy is obviously a duffer. Sufficient numbers like to imagine having a beer with their president that they overwhelm those who contemplate with equanimity being nagged by their president. No need to make it more complicated, pundits.

Labour is a bit short of geniality. Maybe Brown is indeed doomed against Cameron but which of its top brass wouldn’t be? Ed Balls is probably as chirpy as any member of the government but the press hate him and he suffers from having spent so long as a super-loyal Brownite. Alan Johnson might be their best bet: bluff, twinkly enough and certainly a contrast to Cameron. But has he got a thick enough skin? Brown has this much going for him: he exhibits no iota of discomfort or pain or bewilderment at the daily onslaught he has to undergo, not in public anyway.

It may be that there is no way out for Labour, that the downturn will be politically fatal as it would be fatal for any party that had to deal with it. But these strident absolutes are folly: that Labour cannot win, that Brown must go. Anything can happen in politics and the party needs to keep its nerve and present a united front so that the government can have the best shot at coming through the crisis unscathed.

Friday, September 12, 2008


The indiscreet executive from the power company E.On, one Mark Owen-Lloyd, was only confirming what most of us already knew when he affably remarked at an Ofgem seminar that the current rip-roaring price hike for electricity and gas was fine because “it will make more money for us”.

Ministers attacked Owen-Goal with incandescent fury. Hilary Benn raged that it was “not funny”. Gordon Brown poured the full weight of prime ministerial scorn on the remark, coruscating it as “inappropriate”. Of course the post-Thatcher and –Blair Labour Party knows that the point of business is to make profits. That’s what business is for. That’s why these ministers were implicitly criticising the tone of the remark rather than the substance.

Because ‘New’ Labour wants to keep business sweet, it will not – there was never any chance that it would – impose a windfall tax on the power companies. Left-inclined backbenchers who have been ‘demanding’ such a tax are not living in the real world, on two counts. First, because they think the government still might be susceptible to arguments about social justice. Second, because a windfall tax would defeat the purpose that they intend for it. For the power companies would simply pass it on to the customers.

Gordon Brown, ever a man for a ‘package’, has come up with one supposed to alleviate the poleaxing rises in power bills. “Lag Your Loft” may not rank with “Workers of the World Unite” as a rallying cry for the proletariat but it is not an unworthy basis for a programme of action. But of course the power companies, inasmuch as they are expected to fund cavity wall and loft insulation schemes, will quickly find ways of preventing these costs from reducing the profits for their shareholders. Those of us who do not need help with insulation will surely find ourselves paying for those who do, just as we will be called upon to subsidize the bills of the 600,000 poorest customers. This is not quite the kind of redistribution of wealth that Marx and Engels had in mind.

Any government that had any kind of nodding acquaintance with Socialism would be resolving this issue in the only way that makes any sense: it would take the public utilities back into public ownership. Renationalisation need be no more fraught a process than was the original nationalisation. After all, the administration in Washington, about as far from a Socialist outfit as a government can be, has just taken into public ownership two of the biggest US businesses, the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC), commonly known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Yes, these were failing concerns while the power companies are cash cows with the moo to fight any restraint of profit. But former utilities are in a special position, benefiting from the appearance (if not always the reality) of holding local monopolies. Private companies cannot construct a rival national grid any more than they can build their own rail network or telecommunications system.

The Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s privatised British Airways, the British Airport Authority, British Rail, British Steel, British Telecom, the bus service, the coal industry and what remained public of British Petroleum as well as outsourcing gas, electricity and water. The Blair government accepted all this as a fait accompli, even resisting the overwhelming case made by the new rail operators’ inability to maintain a coherent service. The accepted bromide became ‘public-private partnership’ because, by leaving shareholders largely unscathed, Blair kept the support of an unprecedented proportion of business and the press.

I would venture that privatising the power companies would be the vote-winner that Gordon Brown so urgently needs. After all, only those who invested in them love the power companies and many of the companies that now own our utilities are based abroad. By taking these essentials back into public administration, Brown would demonstrate that his concern for the people’s welfare outweighs narrow party interest. And it would steal a terrific march on David Cameron.

Friday, September 05, 2008


It’s a mug who predicts election results – who predicts pretty much anything in this cockamamie world. But after Barack Obama’s speech and John McCain’s left-field pick of a vice presidential candidate who, at first blush, looked a mistake on every count, it was hard to resist the feeling that we’d witnessed the 48 hours that sealed the presidency.

Now I’m less sure. The American electorate is a terribly conservative animal. It doesn’t follow inspiration with great zeal. The legend of Jack Kennedy has obscured the fact that he almost didn’t win the electoral battle of 1960 with Richard Nixon. This conservatism, paradoxically, may be McCain’s greatest fear and why he chose the governor of Alaska, to shore up the conservative core vote. As it is too late for him to shrug off his image as a “mavrick”– to quote a prominent banner at the convention – McCain is only being realistic if he glories in that image. Sarah Palin brings to his ticket all those certainties he cannot so persuasively call down: small-town blinkers, God, apple pie and the American way.

That she is a woman will, it seems to me, pay diminishing returns (and anyway alienate as many reactionaries as it delights), unless the Democrats – and especially bluff Joe Biden in the televised vice presidential debate – make the mistake of patronising her. But to suggest that Palin offers a home for the disaffected Hillary vote is absurd and the most patronising notion of all, that the “women’s vote” is some monolith that blindly supports a female candidature. Senator Clinton’s electorate in the primaries will not have contained very many bear-hunting, evangelical, pro-drilling anti-abortionists. Such women would already be Republicans. Besides, Palin may be a successful woman but she’s no sister. “This is America” she told the convention “and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity”. Oh, get real, Sarah.

Beyond the party faithful, her hockey mom/PTA shtik won’t have legs. In fact, she’s exhausted it already, unless no one is steering her away from self-parody, her greatest danger. Saturday Night Live would have a field day with her, especially if they could get some witty high-profile guest to do her: Sandra Bullock, say. And what is with the hippie names of her children: Bristol, Track, Summer, Liberty, Joaquin, Rain and River? That’s begging for parody. There is something completely weird about the way the boy who got her daughter up the duff has been embraced and brought into the Republican fold like he’s some war hero. But there’s no mileage for the Democrats in a god-fearing woman’s daughter having an illegitimate child these days. If Dick Cheney could smile through his daughter’s lesbianism, they all know that ‘family’ stuff is off-limits, even, it seems, Mr Palin’s drink-driving conviction.

In her convention speech, Governor Palin said something wholly false and unworthy and the Democrats should nail her for it: “Here’s how I look at the choice Americans face in this election: in politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers and then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change”. That kind of reversal is an age-old rhetorical trick that sounds smart because it sounds poetically precise. The Democrats should challenge her to spell out exactly what (and who) she means by it, if indeed she means anything at all. She has no lack of chutzpah: she can be taken down a peg or two.

I’ve looked at Palin’s speech because in many ways it is the most important one. Obama and McCain both reached some 40 million viewers, astonishing ratings that give some evidence of the degree to which the race has compelled the public. Fewer Americans watched the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the final of American Idol or this year’s Oscars. But Palin attracted almost as high figures, far more than Biden or indeed either Clinton.

She is the surprise package of this election, someone none of us had heard of a week ago and now can’t ignore. If she becomes deputy to a president of 72 who has a history of skin cancer, she could herself be president before we know it. That’s one of the craziest aspects of the American system. It is almost true that anyone can be president. It is at least true that you don’t have to spend decades building bases and forming alliances like you do in most countries (admittedly in some of those countries the groundwork you do is in the military rather than the political world, before you lead a coup).

Good sense still clings to Obama making it. It remains clear that he galvanises audiences both in the flesh and on the screen. He speaks well: his convention speech was feisty, combative, ambitious, elegant and yes, inspirational. “It’s about you” he cried and McCain, presumably consciously in his own speech, echoed that: “I work for you”. McCain’s speech was far less accomplished and far less excitingly delivered, for all the ballyhoo in the hall. (I wondered if people were periodically chanting “Judas” but I think it was “hero”, a puerile chant. They were probably the same people who set out to undermine John Kerry’s military service credentials four years ago).

McCain comes across as too genial, so that his protestations of strength and courage seem to be protesting too much. But then maybe Americans like that and that’s why they elected Ronald Reagan and George W Bush rather than Jimmy Carter for a second term, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and Kerry. To someone like me – a socialist sceptic – the signs that the Republican crowd held up looked pretty feeble: “Straight Talk”. It’s hardly “Give ‘em Hell, Harry”.

I still think it will be astonishing if McCain wins. It still sure is Obama’s to lose. But here’s a hostage that McCain offered to fortune, to be put by and read back to him if he does serve a term: “I’m not in the habit of breaking promises to my country and neither is Governor Palin. And when we tell you we’re going to change Washington and stop leaving our country’s problems for some unluckier generation to fix, you can count on it”. Well, many a new president, formerly a bit of a “mavrick”, has ridden a high horse into DC and soon found that actually there’s more power on the hill and in the departments and the lawyers’ offices and the lobbyists’ rollerdex and, especially, the financiers’ clout than he had ever imagined. And that goes for Obama as well as McCain. And once again you remember that, for all the talk about the president being “the most powerful man in the world”, nobody governs save by consent and most of that consent comes from the vested interests and the international capital that the candidates think they’re going into government to tame.