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Monday, January 23, 2017

Welsh Lib Dems continue to deliver in Government

The Welsh Liberal Democrats may have been reduced to just one Assembly Member but that has not stopped us delivering a number of items from our 2016 manifesto.

As the Western Mail reports, Welsh Education Secretary Kirsty Williams today delivered on one of our key pledges when she announced a new £36m fund to reduce infant class sizes and raise standards.

The money, consisting of revenue and capital funding, will be invested over the next four years up until 2021 and will target classes, starting with the largest ones, where teaching and learning need to improve and where there are high levels of deprivation.

As the paper says figures compiled by the Welsh Government showed there were 8,196 pupils in large classes in 2016 (7.6% of all infant pupils), compared to 7,835 pupils (7.3%) in similar-sized classes in 2015. The number of pupils aged between four and seven in large classes was as low as 6,969 (6.6%) in 2013.

As Kirsty says:  “There is a positive connection between smaller classes and attainment, particularly for pupils from poorer backgrounds. This is most significant for younger children, which is why we are targeting this investment at infant class sizes.

“This announcement, linked to our other reforms, will create the space for teachers to teach and for pupils to learn.”

The whole point of being in politics is to get things done and to deliver reforms that improve people's lives. Kirsty Williams is exemplifying that maxim.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

First Trump White House press briefing ends in controversy

At some point in his Presidency Donald Trump and his staff will have to stop treating the office of POTUS as an ego-stoking excercise and start governing. We are used to Donald Trump inflating the facts so as to big-himself-up, but surely his new Press Secretary has put himself in a difficult situation from the start by lying to the media from the White House rostrum at his first attempt.

The Mirror says the first White House briefing for Trump's press secretary descended into farce as he angrily claimed the president's inauguration had 'the largest audience ever', despite photographic evidence to the contrary:

Sean Spicer claimed the media had lied about attendance at Friday's inauguration as he said around 770,000 people had showed up – just hours after Trump claims there were double that number in the crowd.

The new President was widely ridiculed after pictures emerged showing a comparatively thin audience at his swearing-in ceremony alongside a picture of Barack Obama's packed inauguration.

But Spicer claimed that aerial photographs of the event had been "intentionally framed in a way in one particular tweet to minimise the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall".

His furious statement led to accusations on Twitter it was actually he that was lying, with some describing the briefing as 'Soviet'.

Spicer then launched into a bizarre defence arguing that the crowds seemed smaller because floor coverings had been used on the Mall that "highlighted" places where people were not standing.

The serious point behind this is if the Press Secretary cannot be trusted to get things right on such a trivial issue, how can the Trump White House be relied upon to tell the world the truth on more important issues?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Is Trump's honeymoon over already?

Some of the first acts of the Trump presidency were to remove all references to US Government policy on climate change and LGBT rights from the White House website. He also announced that he plans to stop funding the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA budget is $148 million, Trump's inauguration cost $200 million.

Over at the Guardian, Richard Wolffe makes a strong case as to why it could be all downhill from now on for the Trump Presidency. Now he has to take responsibility for his ramblings on Twitter, for his relationship with Vladimir Putin and his corporate dealings, in a way that not only leaves him open to impeachment but also could affect his polls and his consequential influence as President.

If he is unpopular as President then it becomes harder, even with a Republican Congress and Senate to get things done. It also makes it more likely that mid-term elections in two years time could go against his party.

And we should not forget that he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes whilst his poll ratings on the eve of inauguration are at an historic low for a man in his position. The latest poll shows that 37 percent of Americans approve of Trump ahead of his inauguration, while 54 percent do not.

As Richard Wolffe says: This is the high-water mark of every president’s approval ratings – before they do the tough stuff of governing and encounter one of the many fast-moving crises that pass through the West Wing. At the height of his popularity, Donald Trump is polling as badly as George W Bush at the end of his doomed presidency, after the catastrophic collapse of the economy and the bloody disaster of the Iraq war.

A bumper crop of pre-inauguration polls tell the story of how deeply unpopular the 45th president is already. His personal popularity is as low as 32% compared to 61% favorability for President Obama.

Approval of his transition shows him trailing Obama by an even greater margin: just 40% like the way Trump has performed since November, compared to 84% for Obama’s transition eight years ago. Even George W Bush, elected after the extraordinary recount and legal coup in 2000, earned a 61% rating for his transition.

However, the nub of the article is that the greatest threat, both to his presidency and the republic, comes from Trump himself:

Somewhere near the top of the list is potential profiteering from the presidency through his continued ownership of the Trump Organization. It seems Trump will be in breach of the government lease on his new Washington hotel as soon as he is sworn into office today. His efforts to hold onto the lease – which specifically prohibits government officials from holding it – will reveal his true priorities in office.

According to his personal attorney, Trump has drawn an ethical line by appointing his own ethics officer inside his own company. This is a quaint arrangement favored by foxes guarding henhouses. The ethics of the Trump Organization are irrelevant; the ethics of the presidency, however, are governed by article one of the constitution, which prohibits gifts of any kind from foreign powers.

Even under his own sham scheme, the new president has already breached his so-called ethical standards. “President-elect Trump first ordered that all pending deals be terminated,” Trump’s attorney Sheri Dillon told the press last week. “The trust agreement as directed by President Trump imposes severe restrictions on new deals. No new foreign deals will be made whatsoever during the duration of President Trump’s presidency.”

This will come as news to the good people of Aberdeen who are about to witness the dramatic expansion of the Trump golf course in Scotland. That expansion, confirmed just this week, involves another 18 holes, a new 450-room hotel, a timeshare complex and a private housing estate.

Trump’s staff brush aside these niceties by saying the Scottish deal is just a wafer-thin mint of an expansion of an existing deal.

Sadly the constitution doesn’t distinguish between new and existing deals when it strictly prohibits the president from drawing any benefits from foreign powers. It just says they are all unconstitutional.

What kind of deals might breach the now famous emoluments clause? As ProPublica has detailed, there’s the Indian deal in Mumbai that involves the vice-president of the ruling BJP party, who is also an elected official. There’s a deal in Bali, Indonesia, with an Indonesian politician, who has partnered with state-owned companies from China and South Korea. And there’s a deal in Manila with a man recently named as an economic envoy to the US by the murderous President Duterte of the Philippines.

You don’t have to be a constitutional law professor to appreciate the legal and political jeopardy for Trump. President Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about sex, a supposedly high crime and misdemeanor that is not actually cited by the constitution. Unlike making money from foreign officials, which is.

Finally there’s the noose that’s tightening around Trump’s alleged Russian relationships. You know, the ones the new president said IN ALL CAPS absolutely don’t exist and never have, not ever, oh no.

The FBI and five other agencies are now investigating whether Russia covertly transferred cash to pay email hackers in the United States as part of a broader Kremlin plot to influence the presidential campaign in Trump’s favor.

We also know that counter-intelligence officials are investigating possible contacts and ties between Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Russian officials.

Almost every scandal gets compared to Watergate, but very few genuinely deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. Of course, Watergate wasn’t potentially financed by our mortal enemies in Moscow, even if it did involve undermining a presidential election.

These are not matters that can be overcome in a late-night Twitter spat. They are serious matters that could overshadow Watergate and Iran-Contra in terms of their impact. And the really depressing news is that if Trump does go, he will be succeeded by Mike Pence, a former member of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Farron accuses Corbyn but are all the Lib Dem MPs with him?

It is some time since a Liberal Democrat leader featured so prominently on the front page of the Guardian so it is worth reflecting on where the party currently stands.

The Liberal Democrats have just passed 80,000 members after surges in new recruits following the 2015 General Election, the European referendum and Theresa May's 'Brexit means Brexit' fiasco/saga. We are the only party fighting elections in all the nations of Great Britain with a clear pro-European message and we are very very slowly starting to see the benefits of that stance in the polls.

It is right therefore that Tim Farron should step up the pressure on the Labour Leader who, as he says in the Guardian article, has lamely given up while Britain “drives off a cliff” towards Brexit. He adds that in his view future generations will not forgive Labour for failing to stand up to Theresa May’s plans:

In an overt attempt to steal votes from Labour in pro-remain constituencies, Farron said he believed Corbyn had put his party on the wrong side of the biggest political issue in a generation and was struggling because his MPs were increasingly split on how to respond.

“I think what Labour has done is to believe this is too difficult for them politically, let’s just wait for it to go away, and the meeker we are, the quicker it will go away. I think that’s the calculation they’ve made, and this and future generations are not going to forgive them for that,” he said. “We are saying that Jeremy Corbyn and now Keir Starmer [the shadow Brexit secretary] as well – you have a Labour party from top to bottom that is failing.”

On Thursday, Corbyn sparked disquiet among his colleagues by signalling that he would expect Labour MPs to back legislation triggering article 50. Up to 30 Labour MPs, including several shadow cabinet members, are considering rebelling rather than back a bill that they believe will endorse the 12-point Brexit plan laid out by May in a speech on Tuesday.

Farron hopes that his party’s clear pro-EU position will propel it to an electoral revival, after it snatched a seat from the Conservatives in the Richmond Park byelection and relegated Labour into fourth position in Sleaford.

Setting out his version of the differences between the Lib Dems and Labour, Farron said it was necessary to oppose the Conservatives over Brexit: “It’s not divisive to hold the government to account, and not just to lamely give up as we go over a cliff, and that is what Labour are doing – they are being the most ineffective opposition in living memory.”

This is not opportunism as some have claimed, it is the reassertion of a core raison d'etre of the party. The Liberals and the Liberal Democrats have always been a passionately pro-European party. The SDP had as one of its core principles a commitment to Europe. The fact that Labour and the Tories have effectively ceded that position to us is helping us to get that message across.

But there are dangers in this approach, not least in the apparent lack of unity within the Parliamentary Party. Just because there are only 9 MPs, does not mean that we can act in an undisciplined way.

On such a key issue as this, splits in the way MPs vote will come back and bite us and undermine much of the good will that has been built up over the European issue. It is not good enough having Tim Farron lead from the front, all nine MPs need to be squarely behind him.

When it comes to the vote on Section 50, the nine MPs need to vote as a single block and have a reasoned justification for the way that they vote. Failure to do so will undermine all the good things that have been achieved in the last six months and set back the pro-European cause for some time.

I hope that they are listening.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Why post-Brexit trade deals will be harder than May pretends

The Prime Minister may argue that one of the benefits of leaving the single market is that we will be able to have better control of our borders but she will soon discover that the UK cannot have its cake and eat it.

Brexiteers are seeking to reassure us that once we leave the EU, there will be many countries seeking to do a trade deal with the UK. I have already argued that in the case of the USA there are substantial downsides to such a deal both in terms of the quality of goods and food we may be forced to accept but also in the threat to national institutions such as the NHS.

The biggest lie though is that we can strike these deals on our terms whilst insisting only on the free-flow of goods but not people. That is amply illustrated by this article in the Independent, which reports that one of Britain's most important post-Brexit trade partnerships could be at risk due to Theresa May's refusal to reform visa restrictions for Indian citizens.

The paper says that a senior Indian official argues that: "mobility issues are of importance to us; we cannot separate free movement of people from the free flow of goods, services and investments”. And S Irudaya Rajan, an advisor to the Indian government on migration issues added: “India is an important country for the UK and curbing the flow of good minds, whether they are students or skilled workers, cannot be good for the UK.” 

The Brexiteers may think they have stemmed the flow of Europeans into the UK, but if they want to deal elsewhere then the free movement of people will remain a deal-breaker. Out of the frying pan into the fire for Theresa May and her merry band.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Donald Trump's first broken promise

He is only due to be inaugurated on Friday but already Donald Trump looks set to ditch his main campaign pitch, the many things he promised to do on day one.

As the Independent says, Trump made many promises for his first day in office, from saying he would deport two million undocumented migrants in his “first hour” to claiming he would start building a wall along the border between Mexico and the US immediately, his first day was set to be action-packed.

However, now the President-elect has announced that he will not start attending to presidential duties until two days after his inauguration:

The billionaire property magnate explained that he would take the weekend off and instead consider Monday as the first day of his administration.

Mr Trump said he did not want administration duties to get “mixed up” with the celebration of his inauguration, which is on 20 January.

“Day one - which I will consider to be Monday as opposed to Friday or Saturday. Right?” Mr Trump told Michael Gove in his interview with The Times. The billionaire property magnate explained that he would take the weekend off and instead consider Monday as the first day of his administration.

Mr Trump said he did not want administration duties to get “mixed up” with the celebration of his inauguration, which is on 20 January.

“I mean my day one is gonna be Monday because I don’t want to be signing and get it mixed up with lots of celebration.”

It is little wonder that people are saying that someone needs to explain to him that its not that type of gig.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Nick Clegg and chlorine-soaked chickens

Brexiteers who are clinging to Trump's promise of a quick trade deal with the UK as justification for the mess they have got us into, may live to regret their early enthusiasm. These things are not as straightforward as they seem. We have the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as evidence that these deals come at a cost

As Nick Clegg points out in this article, the free-for-all nature of the US economy could lead to a different standard applying to the goods we import into this country from Trump's America:

Mr Clegg accused Brexit supporters of believing in a “fantasy world” of trade deals with far-flung countries, which could never replace the EU’s single market.

And he recounted a conversation with Joe Biden, the outgoing US Vice-President, to underline what the US will demand as the price of an agreement with Britain.

The former Liberal Democrat leader said: “He said to me very unsentimentally – in that folksy way he does – ‘We are not going to sign anything that the chicken farmers of Delaware don’t like!’.

“Now, the chicken farmers of Delaware wash their chicken flesh with some sort of chlorine.

“It’s bleached – bloody horrible stuff – which is not allowed in the EU, the EU has decided, through various laws.

“You tell me, but I suspect the good shoppers of Waitrose and Sainsbury’s and others might be a little bit shocked if, suddenly, they are having to eat this slightly white, chlorine-washed American chicken flesh.”

Mr Clegg added, sarcastically: “And that’s the great triumph of the new US-UK trade agreement.”

At present the EU uses a so-called “farm-to-fork” approach, requiring steps all along the production chain to ensure the food ultimately sold is safe. The Independent speculates that any deal to allow US meat to be sold in Britain after inferior safety measures would be likely to provoke uproar from farmers and consumers.

Any deal with the USA could be as controversial as TTIP with equal threats to the integrity of the NHS, food and environmental safety, banking regulations, privacy and the undermining of democracy by enabling big corporations to dictate policy to government. 

As ever the devil is in the detail. Those who are embracing Trump's offer should think again.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Labour in chaos again

As the Daily Telegraph reports Labour's freedom of movement position is in chaos once again as the shadow foreign secretary said the party will not "die in a ditch" over the policy.

They say that Emily Thornberry made the comments just minutes after Jeremy Corbyn refused to accept that levels of EU migration to Britain were too high. Nor is this the first time that senior Labour politicians have openly contradicted each other in public:

The party's position was in disarray last week after Mr Corbyn indicated on Monday that he was prepared to address the concerns of voters by announcing that his party favoured "reasonably managed migration".

However, when he delivered his speech he changed a key paragraph to say that the party did not "rule out" keeping free movement in exchange for access to the Single Market.

Mr Corbyn's speech had been intended to end the confusion surrounding his stance on migration after bitter clashes with his shadow cabinet.

But in a series of interviews he said that he was not willing to put limits on migration, and suggested he was prepared to accept free movement in return for access to the Single Market.

Speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, Ms Thornberry said: “We’re not going to die in a ditch about it, it’s up for negotiation, but Labour’s principle has always been that the economy is the most important thing.

“It’s up to negotiations. Labour’s principle has always been that the economy is the most important thing.”

Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this morning, Mr Corbyn acknowledged free movement was up for “negotiation”, but added: “Let’s not blame migrants for the problems that we have.”

He added that any Brexit deal “will involve people from Europe working here just as much as there are 2million British people living and working in the European Union.

“Are we going to cut ourselves from Europe completely? I don’t think so.”

Asked whether Labour wanted more control over who comes into Britain, Ms Thornberry said: “We’ve always been in favour of fair rules, and properly managed migration. That’s always been Labour’s policy. So of course we’re likely to have a new policy on migration if we leave the European Union.”

Although these sound like small differences of emphasis they are in fact quite important. Labour's approach to Brexit appears to differ from week to week, spokesperson to spokesperson, even between leader's pronouncments. It is little wonder that they are incapable of providing coherent opposition.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Lemming Theresa May to take UK over the cliff edge with her

After months of waiting we might finally get an inkling of Theresa May's negotiating strategy on Tuesday when she makes her first public pronouncement on Brexit.

The Telegraph says that the Prime Minister will gamble by siding with Eurosceptics, signalling she is prepared to take Britain out of the single market and customs union.

They add that the speech risks exposing deep splits in the Tory Party over Europe as she finally details her vision for Britain’s future outside the EU:

In her speech, Mrs May is expected to say that Britain must:
How she plans to secure unity on that agenda is difficult to understand. Leaving the customs union and ending single market membership is contrary to the ambition of the 48% who voted to remain and would be disastrous for this country.

The proposal to opt out of the European Court of Justice would undermine everything that has been put in place since the second world war to establish a common legal framework in Europe based on basic human rights principles and to secure the future of peaceful co-operation between nations.

Theresa May is threatening to take this country over a cliff and in doing so satisfying nobody. If this is the reality of 'Brexit means Brexit' then she can keep it.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Is Farage misleading Trump on the stability of the EU?

The Independent reports that Nigel Farage has been accused of misleading Donald Trump over the state of the Brussels bloc by the US ambassador to the European Union:

Anthony Gardner said the former UKIP leader had given the President-elect a false impression that more countries might follow Britain out of the bloc by inflating the level of euro-scepticism in Europe.

He added that it would be "lunacy" to follow UKIP's lead in supporting the "fragmentation of Europe" and urged Mr Trump not to treat the EU as "dysfunctional".

That approach would be "fundamentally flawed", he said.

Mr Gardner who has served as Barack Obama’s EU envoy for three years, also used his final news conference to attack Theresa May’s Brexit stance, calling it “disorderly” and “unmanaged”.

He said: "For us to be the cheerleaders of Brexit and to be encouraging Brexit Mark 2, Mark 3, is the height of folly.”

Describing calls to EU institutions from Mr Trump's aides in recent weeks, Gardner said: "That was the one question that was asked - basically, 'What's the next country to leave?'. Which is kind of suggesting that the place is about to fall apart.

"It's just reflective of the general perception, a misperception, a perception that Nigel Farage is presumably disseminating in Washington and it's a caricature."

The ambassador said Mr Farage, who had written to him recently requesting a meeting, had misled Trump's transition team on the state of the EU.

"We should not depart from 50 years of foreign policy with regard to the EU," he said. "We should not become the cheerleaders for Brexit, particularly if Brexit appears more likely to be a hard, disorderly unmanaged Brexit."

He added: "A hard Brexit or a fragmentation of the European market would be very bad news for American business."

Farage is playing Gríma Wormtongue to Donald Trump's King Théoden. He is an agent provocateur, undermining the unity of Europe, a unity that has kept the peace for over 70 years and in doing so he is working against the interests of the UK.

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