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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: Expectations were so low for Miliband that mere signs of life are being heralded as the Second Coming

So what did you actually think? The Guardian and the BBC - a distinction without a difference - have told us that it was wonderful: that Ed Miliband's speech was Pericles, Abraham Lincoln and Nye Bevan at their very best. Well, I thought that he went on too long. Far too long. Twenty minutes from the end, I was reminded of the old-fashioned copy-taker's complaint: "Is there much more of this?" There is a comparison between Ed Miliband and the British economy. In each case, expectations have been so depressed that a few signs of life are heralded as the Second Coming. Mr Miliband pleased the Labour tribe. That is far removed from winning an election.

There is a basic reason for scepticism about Tuesday's performance. What did he say? Can you remember a single point of substance? He has been praised for citing Disraeli and One Nation. Really. "One Nation" is the most hackneyed phrase, the most worn-out cliche, in the British political lexicon. As for Disraeli, he is our most elusive Prime Minister. If there were an after-life, he is the first person whom I would want to meet. I would like to ask him the question to which no-one knows the answer: "What, if anything, did you believe?"

Anyway, Mr Miliband is keen on one nation. That might seem odd, given his claim that a lot of its more important members have spent the past five hundred years sitting under an oak tree. If that were remotely true, how come that the UK was great enough and strong enough to rescue and protect his refugee forbears? Ed Miliband's one nation stretches all the way from Hampstead Garden Suburb to Gospel Oak.

Apropos of speeches, the US election is now wide open. Up to now, Mitt Romney has been a terrible campaigner. Despite that, he has failed to obscure the fact that he has moral depth and that even if he is bad at rhetoric, he could be a formidable mechanic: just the sort of President the US needs. If he had lost Wednesday night's debate, it would have been all over. Now, we are almost certainly heading for a close result, and Mr Obama has a problem. There is a myth that he is a great orator. In truth, his major speeches have been far inferior to George W. Bush's.

Barack Obama did win one brilliancy prize with: "Yes, we can". That was the best American political phrase since another three-word effort: "I like Ike". But four years later, there is an obvious retort: "No, we haven't". From now till the first Tuesday in November, the President will come under scrutiny. The myths will not be enough.

Moreover, Barack Obama has another problem. He is not a unifying President; he does not like his country (though he is not as bad as his wife). Like Ed Miliband, he will pretend to support one nation in order to try to turn his country into a different nation. I felt that a bit of this came through in the first debate. Let us hope for more.

Scrutiny: that is what we need, starting with the Department for Transport. There has been an almighty cock-up. When the country is short of money, a lot of cash has been wasted. So who is to blame, Ministers or civil servants - or both?

Ministers cannot be expected to master all the technicalities involved in negotiating large and complicated contracts. Does this mean that the guilt lies with the officials? Over the past twenty-four hours, I have heard two robust and contradictory views. A Tory MP drew an analogy with the Army. If something goes wrong, it is no use the officer blaming his sergeants; he is responsible. A former very senior Labour Minister disagreed. It would be silly to assume that any politician has the expertise to deal with a franchise bid. So he is bound to rely on those who do. If it all falls apart, why should they not be identified?

That is a difficult question, and it is to be hoped that the relevant Select Committees will address it. But there is one possible conclusion. Although Ministers are rarely experts, they are politicians. They must therefore be expected to display political guile - and political self-preservation. Richard Branson is a remarkable fellow, and a formidable one. Over the decades, he has shown himself to be adept, in defence and attack. Behind that hippyish exterior, there is a street-fighter, and a litigious one at that. If you went after him, it would not be a matter of chasing away the neighbour's yowling pussy cat. Load the gun for bear. 

You are a Minister. Your officials tell you that Sir Richard ought to lose his franchise. Immediately, you know that this would mean the mother of all battles. So you question and probe. Even though the points are technical, you wrestle with them. There is one obvious precaution. You will have access to the Department's lawyers. Hmmm. How good are they? You form an assessment. If you are wise, you also seek reinforcements, in the form of Counsel's opinion. Who is the best Silk in this area? Let us send the papers to him.

If a Minister did all that, then even if the case did crash in Court, he could insist that he had taken every reasonable precaution. It would be hard to argue that he did not have cover. It will now be up to Justine Greening to show whether she did display political cunning - or whether she left the Department of Transport just in time.


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