Tuesday 25 November 2008

Speculation, speculation

This blog has, not unreasonably, argued that anybody stirring up election speculation should be taken out and shot - metaphorically, or otherwise. Since it really isn't going to happen, perhaps we can calm down now.

So, while we all have more important things to think about, we naturally take a good deal of interest in Mr Martin Bright engaging in a small bit of sport speculating about speculation about who may be doing the election speculating over on the New Statesman blog.

Bright reported last week:

As one former cabinet minister who spent a long time at the Treasury told the New Statesman: "Gordon has to get the Obama visit out of the way then call an election. There really is no other option."

He is not seeking to "out" his election speculating source - but to exonerate ex-Treasury Minister Geoffrey Robinson, pointing out that he was never a Cabinet Minister. Until Bright flagged that up, James Forsyth's deduction that Robinson could well be the source for both Bright's article and Friday's Standard splash seemed very plausible.

Since Martin seems to be inviting us all to play a guessing game, let's see what we can work out.

There are at least three current Cabinet Ministers - apart from the PM and Chancellor - who spent a long time in the Treasury: two Eds and an Yvette. Thank God that they can not fit the description, or we really could be heading for trouble.

It is of course not possible to work out who Bright's source is - but it is possible to find several candidates for a shortlist. So who are some of the "former Cabinet Ministers who spent a long time at the Treasury"?

Former Chief Secretaries Byers and Milburn did not spend long at the Treasury in either case. Unless Martin was very deliberately trying to lay a false scent, this would also be a pretty unorthodox way to describe those particular sources.

I can identify four or five other possible candidates - Paul Boateng and Andrew Smith were both in the Cabinet as Chief Secretaries to the Treasury, while Ruth Kelly was both Economic Secretary and Financial Secretary. Helen Liddell was Economic Secretary, as was Patricia Hewitt, but only for a year in each case, before going on to other Ministerial roles and the Cabinet.

(I admit I could be missing somebody else. But I am assuming we are looking for an ex-Cabinet Minister was in office since 1997 - rather than, say, Ken Clarke, or a member of the Callaghan government: the phrasing implies their time at the Treasury gives them some insight into Mr Brown's thinking. There may have been other junior ministers at the Treasury who went on to the Cabinet, or somebody from the Lords, perhaps who worked there as an adviser or civil servant before serving in Cabinet in a non-Treasury job. But I can't think of anyone).

Paul Boateng and Helen Liddell are currently High Commissioners to South Africa and Australia respectively. That does not rule them out. but it may make them less likely.

I don't think Hewitt's year at the Treasury would count as a long time.

However, Ruth Kelly seems to meet Bright's criteria: she was a Treasury Minister for three years, having previously worked at the Bank of England. But, as an MP who is standing down at the election, she might be less likely to be debating its timing.

So my guess - and I stress it is purely a guess - is that Mr Andrew Smith of Oxford East might seem to be the most plausible secret source from my shortlist, simply through that rough process of elimination, though I have no information whatsoever about his views about the timing of the next election.


donpaskini said...

Hi Sunder,

Isn't speculating about speculating even worse than speculating? Anyway, if it helps, it's definitely not Andrew Smith. Andrew has much better things to do than gossip with New Statesman hacks about nonsense, like working really hard in his constituency and leading a really effective local campaigning machine.

My bet would be that Martin Bright is writing a load of old nonsense. There is a lot of supporting evidence for this, e.g. all of his other columns.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for your comment. Meta-speculation about speculation about speculation seems to me to be harmless. There is not going to be an early election. Mildly debunking claims to the contrary is unlikely to stoke a debate about it. Besides, were James MacIntyre to write a response to this post, I think we might be on such a meta-plane as to discover something about the origins of the universe.

I hope my post was fair to Andrew Smith and the others mentioned in being quite clear that I had no information, beyond the published clue trail. Since you know this was "definitely not" Andrew Smith, you have better information than I do. (Perhaps you are Andrew Gilligan?!). Of course, Next Left would carry an on the record denial were one supplied, though I am sure you are right they all have better things to do.

Out of fairness to Martin Bright. Whether or not he writes nonsense, I am certain that he would not make up the attribution of a quote: he is far too straight a reporter for that, whatever anybody might think of his commentary, analysis, etc on whatever issue. (His post about Geoffrey R makes clear that the description was a carefully worded one). Declaration: I was a colleague of Martin's at The Observer for a couple of years, and so have seen him work at close quarters. I have not spoken to him since he wrote this piece, and have no information about it.

Giant Lizard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Giant Lizard said...

Sunder, have you seen Andrew Smith on literally any media this year?

I haven't seen him quoted in any media except the Oxford Mail since he called for Tony Blair to lay out a resignation timetable.