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July 24 2012

Monsieur Hollande's holiday looks set to pass normality test

Staycation at no-frills traditional summer residence would please austerity-hit French after Sarkozy's ostentatious jet-setting

Gone, it seems, are the heady summer days when a French president could spend his holidays on a billionaire friend's luxury yacht or jet off to New Hampshire for a couple of weeks; gone, too, the possibility of enjoying the five-star hospitality of a friendly dictator, generous African autocrat or wealthy industrialist.

The choice of holiday destination has become somewhat limited for the French president, François Hollande, having sold himself as Monsieur Normal, once declared "I don't like the rich", and draw up a "morality code" for his administration.

Add the constraints of security and the austerity required in an economic crisis, and even Hollande's second home, near Cannes, is too risky and too "showbiz".

With time and options running out, it has been revealed that Hollande's partner, Valérie Trierweiler, visited the traditional presidential summer residence of Fort de Brégançon, on the French Riviera.

Trierweiler made a trip down south to the 11th-century fortress with a security officer last week, claimed Le Parisien, to check it out as a suitable spot for the couple's two-week holiday at the beginning of August.

A magnificent edifice atop a rock in the Mediterranean may not be everyone's idea of a "normal" spot for a holiday. But the fort, connected by jetty to the mainland and the nearby village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, on the western edge of the Côte Varoise, has been the property of the French state and a presidential summer residence for over four decades.

In the past leaders have tended to love or hate Brégançon, with its cramped rooms, cold stone walls and austere interior. Charles de Gaulle was said to have been so uncomfortable during a sleepless night in a too-small bed at the fort in 1964 that he never set foot in the place again.

Some in Hollande's entourage have suggested that even Brégançon, with its private beach – albeit one on which it is impossible to avoid the prying lenses of the paparazzi – may be too grand for a French leader seeking to prove his normality. But, like the holidays of the British prime minister, David Cameron, in Cornwall, the choice shows a certain patriotism.

Marc Concas, the head of the regional council and a Socialist party member, thought it unlikely Hollande would spend many holidays at Brégançon, however.

"It's too ostentations," he said. "Personally, I can imagine that François Hollande will come and visit the place. I'm sure he will: not to stay there but to see if it would be useful to get rid of it so it at least so it's no longer a cost to the taxpayer."

Hollande will be mindful that it was Nicolas Sarkozy's penchant for expensive holidays that contributed to his damaging "bling-bling" image. Days after his election victory in 2007 Hollande's predecessor and his then wife, Cécilia, were in the Mediterranean, off Malta, on a yacht belonging to the billionaire French businessman Vincent Bolloré.

Despite the criticism, a few months later the Sarkozys flew to the United States to holiday in a €22,000 (£17,000) a week luxury villa at Wolfeboro, where the president had brunch with his US counterpart, George W Bush. Later, with his third wife, Carla Bruni, Sarkozy flew to Egypt in Bolloré's Falcon 900 private jet to stay in an apartment belonging to an Abu Dhabi sheikh. Holidays in Jordan, Mexico and Brazil followed.

After his defeat, in May, the Sarkozys were in Marrakech staying in a luxury apartment belonging to King Mohammed. Shortly afterwards, they were in Canada holidaying at the home of a wealthy media, insurance and investment tycoon.

Apart from a few days in 2007 near Tangiers, in Morocco, where he was photographed on a public beach with "no towels and no frills", according to journalists, Hollande has chosen to spend most of his holidays in France.

He is a familiar face at Mougins, near Cannes, where Picasso lived and where he has a second home. But he spent last summer with Trierweiler at Hossegor, in the Landes, on the south-western coast, where they were photographed cycling and enjoying the local oysters.

When approached by reporters Hollande told them he was on holiday "like everyone else". The local paper was quick to point out the contrast with Sarkozy: "Two men, two styles", it wrote.


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May 25 2012

The Saturday interview: Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin, who opens one of the biggest shows of her career today, talks about swapping sex for stargazing, why she likes David Cameron, and wanting her art to make people feel better

Demanding artist, selfish (her words) seeks an intelligent man with good sense of humour, probably not for sex because she's going through the menopause and has lost the urge, but definitely for laughs and companionship.

"I want love," says Tracey Emin. "I want to spend my life with someone and do nice things and go on adventures, read books and have nice food and celebrate things. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in the bedroom like some people who just go to bed and never get out again."

Emin is approaching 50 and she is worried about the possibility of a lonely, gentle descent to death. "I am going through the menopause and I have been for ages," she says. "It is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. It's horrible. And I don't look like that kind of person; you don't put menopause on top of my head, it doesn't associate with me."

Emin is talking as she finishes the installation of a show that she regards as one of the most important of her career, because it is in her home town of Margate.

The works going on public display from today are almost all new or never previously exhibited. They explore themes of love and eroticism, but overwhelmingly, they mark a farewell to the old Emin – the wild child, the one that got drunk all the time, the sex, the bed, the tent. Her "animal" lust has gone. Now there is the new Emin.

"People don't talk about it, but the menopause, for me, makes you feel slightly dead, so you have to start using the other things – using your mind more, read more, you have to be more enlightened, you have to take on new things, think of new ideas, discover new things, start looking at the stars, understand astronomy … just wake yourself up, otherwise it's a gentle decline.

"For women, it is the beginning of dying. It is a sign. I've got to start using my brain more – I've got to be more ethereal and more enlightened."

Emin is 48. In 2008 she told Piers Morgan she wanted to adopt children – an idea she scoffs at now. "I have friends who have adopted, and they had to radically change their life, their homes, the way they dressed – everything, to get through the adoption agencies. I am not going to change anything."

She's not even sure she'd make a good mother. "I'd make a good friend, not mother. I'm too selfish. I think a lot of mothers are selfish and they end up having children, but I don't want to put some small tiny person through that. I don't want to be Joan Crawford.

"I would really like the idea of someone small and cute to dress up, we all do, but that's not what it's about, is it? I don't want a mini-me."

The truth is she has now made a conscious decision not to have children, and finds herself something of a role model for other similarly minded women. "I'm never going to have children, I'm never going to be a grandmother, I'm probably never going to get married. I'm nearly 50, and it is not happening. I've got too much on the other side now, and I understand that."

But being childless can be difficult. "You're treated like a witch. And I'm not a witch, it is just that I have chosen to do things in another way. It is not by accident."

There are some stunningly beautiful works in her latest show, and much to get hearts singing, especially in the first room, which features a series of blue drawings bathed in exceptional light. "This room is about not being alone, and there's a nice feeling in this room. It's uplifting."

We look at some drawings of her in bed with a friend reading Daphne du Maurier short stories to her. "It was such a nice, cosy thing. No sex, just a really good story." Emin suddenly seems downbeat. "I've thought I experienced love, and now I'm nearly 50 I'm saying, have I? Maybe I haven't. Maybe I don't know what love is. Maybe what I thought was love was a kind of greed, or desire, or something? I think there's different kinds of love – that's where I'm at at the moment. But I don't think I've experienced love."

Emin came closest in her five-year relationship with fellow YBA (the so-called Young British Artists who emerged in the late 1980s) Mat Collishaw, which ended 10 years ago (they are still good friends). In 2010 she split up with boyfriend Scott Douglas, and her closest relationship now, she says, is with her cat, Docket.

"When you have a really good friend and they're reading you a book in bed and it's all cosy and all snuggly, that can be love, too. It doesn't have to be hardcore. There's different kinds of love, and I'd never experienced that kind of totally platonic love. All the love I've experienced has always been a kind of deal, and now, as I get older, I realise that there's this other love out there."

At the other side of the room we look at some works she has never shown before, from when she was in Australia in 2007. "I was in Sydney on my own for two months, trying to work out why I felt so ill. I went on this complete health thing – I stopped drinking, I cycled every day, I walked about 10km every day, I swam every day, went on a really strict diet. My legs and arms went completely skinny, but my stomach was just getting bigger and bigger, because I was ill, and didn't understand why. What I was trying to do with these drawings was try and make myself feel sexy again, but it was difficult. It was almost there, but wasn't."

What was her illness? "I had a tapeworm."

We move on to works she did in Carrara, Tuscany, when she was looking at marble with a friend. "It was the first time I'd been really happy in a long time. You know when you wake up and you feel good? I realised then I'd been low for a long time."

One is a simple drawing of a heart, which Emin now wants to make in pink alabaster. "I'm sure the first alabaster heart will be a disaster, I'd have to keep working at it, but it's about me being driven by myself," she says. "Whether people like my work or not, I want to show people I can do things. I look at this show and I'm enthusiastic. It makes me want to do things."

Emin's path to art superstardom began when she opened The Shop in Bethnal Green with YBA Sarah Lucas in 1993, cashing in on Damien Hirst's new fame by selling ashtrays with his face on. People began to sit up and take notice with works such as her tent (Everyone I Ever Slept With, from 1963 to 1995) that was bought by Charles Saatchi and shown at the Royal Academy's Sensation show in 1997 – the same year that she so memorably appeared on a late-night Channel 4 discussion show completely hammered. Two years later, Emin was shortlisted for the Turner prize, exhibiting her unmade bed complete with stains, condoms and dirty underwear.

Unlike some other YBAs, her success has endured. She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007, staged an enormously successful mid-career retrospective at London's Hayward gallery last year, and not long after that was voted by her peers as Eranda professor of drawing at the Royal Academy, the first woman to occupy the role.

Critics generally warm to her these days. Reviewing the Hayward show, Rachel Campbell-Johnston of the Times wrote: "I would love to hate Tracey Emin," but she left "a convert". The Guardian's Adrian Searle called her art touching and surprising and said "the cumulative effect is extremely powerful".

She may shake her head at the suggestion, but Emin, once "Mad Trace from Margate", is now firmly part of the establishment. She's even a Tory. "I like David Cameron because I think he is fair compared to a lot of politicians in history," she says. "He's in the centre. Probably more centre than someone in Labour, not mentioning any names, who's actually Opus Dei – that is extreme right-wing thinking."

She is baffled by all the political fighting that goes on. One work in the show, The Vanishing Lake, is a rusting metal bath with a scrunched-up union flag in it, and is a comment on Britain – "politically, socially, morally". The flag is a scar. "I don't understand why people don't pull together. I don't understand why there's so much disunity. I don't understand why people can't just say: 'It's a mess, let's pull together.' Why is everyone so angry with each other on everything? It's so easy – if everyone relaxed and said we should work together, rather than against each other."

The Margate show is at Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery that opened in April last year and is helping to spearhead the town's desperately needed regeneration. Emin has been a staunch supporter, and she was the obvious choice for a major show in Olympic year (the exhibition is part of the London 2012 festival). It is clearly a big deal for her, and she's written an open letter to Margate, asking people to come. "I do feel really positive about this show, because even if people don't like it, I like it. And that is the most important thing. I didn't know that I would, because there's so much new work, and I thought I was setting myself up for a fall, but I've done it. I wanted to do something exceptional because it is Margate.

"I'm always anxious with a show, but more so with this one. I've been tearing myself to pieces … chronic nerves."

Reassuringly, there is a bed in the show. Or a Heal's mattress at least – quite astonishingly stained – on which Emin has placed a bronzed dead branch. The mattress saw service between 2000 and 2003, and is called Dead Sea. But how did it get into such a state? "I'm not going to go into the gory details. Believe me, it was all naturally made. It wasn't all on my own, I can assure you.

"It goes back to that thing of being over." She's talking about sex again. "It's over. This explains it very well. It was there, but it's gone."

And though she's one of the most successful and feted artists of her generation, is rich and has beautiful houses in east London and the south of France, where she spends around four months a year, it's still not easy finding a man. "I don't think it helps," Emin says. "Any woman who is successful and top of their game will tell you that it is not attractive to men."

She says she has not had many close relationships in recent years, and her friends "have seriously stopped" any attempts at matchmaking. "I say to them, 'Would you give him a blow job? No you wouldn't, so don't expect me to.'"

A flash of the old Emin – full-on, confrontational, up yours. Now she simply wants people to come to her show and enjoy it. "A lot of my shows generally make people feel worse," she says. "I'd like it if people came and left feeling better."

She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea: Tracey Emin at Turner Contemporary opens today, until 23 September. Details: turnercontemporary.org


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April 13 2012

British Muslims have given David Cameron an object lesson in democracy | Parveen Akhtar

In Indonesia, Cameron called for Islam to embrace democracy; the young Muslim voters of Bradford West would agree

In his speech in Jakarta on Thursday, David Cameron told Muslims in the east that "democracy and Islam can flourish together", the implication being that they often don't. Especially with a focus on Britain, these comments are not without irony. Exactly two weeks previously, Muslims in a northern city of Britain had exercised their democratic right to vote, helping to elect George Galloway as MP for Bradford West. In so doing, they highlighted that although the issues of Islam, Muslims abroad, the east and the Middle East matter to them, of equal importance is local life.

Galloway's "Bradford spring" saw politicians and journalists bandying about terms such as "biraderi", "clan" and "kinship politics". Biraderi, which literally translates as "patrilineage" is commonly used by Pakistanis to refer to networks of individuals who share a common ancestry. Kinship networks are indeed an important form of social organisation amongst British Pakistanis, a type of internal welfare system for family and blood relations. However, the biraderi politics referred to in comment pieces discussing Bradford West is a very British phenomenon. Biraderi politics in the UK refers to the practices of British politicians of using community leaders in British constituencies with significant Pakistani voters to attain bloc votes. Roy Hattersley, who held the Sparkbrook constituency in Birmingham with a large Pakistani population, once remarked that whenever he saw a Pakistani name on a ballot paper he knew the vote was his.

In Bradford West, Galloway's supporters are largely young, British-born Bradfordians of Pakistani Muslim descent. They are the children and grandchildren of postwar economic migrants: manual labourers in the textile mills and manufacturing industries of the north. Biraderi-based politics had a successful run for nearly 40 years in these areas, but the children of the pioneer generation, born and bought up in the UK, do not identify with this kind of politics. They believe that community leaders do not engage with the issues that concern them.

The whole point of patronage-based politics is that politicians don't have to work for their votes. Alienated by this system, these young people were drawn to George Galloway. Galloway's oratorical skills and abilities in public debate have led some to suggest that Bradford West was a one-off result engineered by a truly individual politician who is a "standard bearer" for British Muslims in a constituency with a large Muslim population.

Galloway is certainly regarded as a hero among British Pakistanis, because he is seen as the only politician to challenge the status quo with regards to Iraq and other issues of Muslim concern. This may have won him the election in 2005 in Bethnal Green and Bow, but it would be misleading to think that he won in Bradford West because young British Muslims are preoccupied with the war. They may have an interest in Muslim issues abroad, but international politics plays only one part in their attitudes. What really matters is the unglamorous world of local politics: street lighting, children's schools, rubbish collection, the problems of vermin and drugs, the lack of opportunities: the bread-and-butter issues of life in the UK.

In electing George Galloway, some Pakistanis made a cognitive leap and reasoned that if Galloway is speaking positively about Muslims abroad, he will also care about them here, and help fight a fight which they believe the older generation of Pakistani community leaders has abandoned, by accepting patronage roles from mainstream politicians who want to stay propped up in their constituencies.

Trying to explain the defeat in Bradford West, John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, blamed the party for having no strategy in the area. On the contrary: the party did have a strategy. The problem was that it was an old strategy, based on the belief that community leaders could guarantee the local Labour candidate a win.

What the Bradford West byelection highlighted so dramatically was that Labour, and indeed all the mainstream political parties, can ill-afford to rely on the patronage-based relationships they enjoyed with the older generation of Pakistanis. Young British Pakistani Muslims are actively participating in British democracy. Religious identity and local concerns flourish side by side. Politicians have to earn and not expect their votes. That is democracy, in east and west.

• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree


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March 23 2012

How to draw the perfect David Cameron caricature

It starts with a fat, top-heavy peanut… political cartoonist Martin Rowson, who will be running a drawing workshop at the Guardian Open Weekend, explains how to create a caricature of the prime minister



December 14 2011

Mrs Cameron's diary: Ikea is, like, so foreign

Pity the poor, for they must shop at Ikea and can't even afford a Banksy to offset that Scandinavian look

Well, once I had recovered, Mummy was like, how was it, and I was like you cannot believe until you get there just how gruesome it actually is, plus millions of nightmare people and it did not remotely help that all the names for everything, even food, were in this total foreignness, God knows how anyone finds anything? Dave is so right, imho, can't we grow up and speak English given everyone knows it, I mean, if you are allowed to translate Girl With a Dolphin Tattoo, whatever, why Ikea can't call a Hampen a high-pile rug is seriously beyond me.

I am not going to tell Hilto, obvs, or next emergency he will make me do an empathy trip to Lidl, but actually, if I were a quite sad person with no money I would totally LOVE Ikea, and I might even keep the Hampen? I suppose Mummy is right, the stuff is uber-hideous on its own, but with a few vintage pieces, in a decent space, on a good floor, with plenty of light and flowers, if you are channelling a Scandinavian vibe with maybe a Banksy or something quite statementy on the walls, some simple storage can really work, at least for a season or two, in a nanny's room or buy-to-let, or one of those kind of shed-offices that desperately poor people have if they can't afford to move? Apparently some of these places are seriously insanitary, you hear about actual Conservatives working in garden sheds without any hygienic or kitchen facilities, literally in W11?

Dave says Europe is way worse than Ikea, I'm like, I don't think so – plus they'd planned this triumphal dinner with the cannons all primed, so there is not a single window left in the dining room, lolz.

And on Sunday we had this service and Govey led the sceptics in Messiah, which is fine because Handel actually lived in England? And he literally wrote a whole section about the government being upon Dave's shoulders, we were like, respect, who knew? Then we had a retiring collection for Croesus at Christmas, which is Blondie's charity for all the people suffering in sheds with only Ikea high-pile rugs for warmth.


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November 25 2011

David Cameron, we have a few questions for you…

From Piers Morgan to Polly Toynbee, Jemima Khan to Jarvis Cocker – David Cameron takes questions from public figures who want answers

Hear what the PM has to say in our audio interactive

David Mitchell, comedian
Do you wish you were less posh?
"[Laughs] No. You can't change who you are. For a long time I thought my full name was 'The Old Etonian David Cameron'. I had parents who gave me a wonderful start in life, who sacrificed a lot to give me a great education. So I don't ever want to change – I don't want to drop my accent or change my vowels. I am who I am."

Piers Morgan, TV presenter
If you could relive one moment in your life, excluding births of children and marriage, what would it be?
"God, that's a really good question. Piers, why don't you ever ask really good questions like that normally? I think it would be this holiday in Italy when I met Samantha properly. It was that sort of carefree wonderful time when you get together with the person you end up spending the rest of your life with. That feeling of happiness and a wonderful holiday with your family around you and the sun is shining and the sea is beautiful and you're with someone who makes you laugh, makes you happy with that sense of excitement in the future."

Richard Dawkins, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author
Why do you support faith schools for children who are too young to have chosen their faith, thereby implicitly labelling them with the faith of their parents, whereas you wouldn't dream of so labelling a "Keynesian child" or a "Conservative child"?
"Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn't really get it. I think faith schools are very often good schools. Why? Because the organisation that's backing them – the church or the mosque or the synagogue – is part of the community. And it brings a sense of community and the backing of an institution to a school. The church was providing good schools long before the state got involved, and we should respect the fact that it's not just the state that can provide education but other bodies, too."

Adrian Chiles, TV presenter
What's the most tedious thing about being PM?
"Waking up on Wednesday morning and realising it's prime minister's questions."

Diane Abbott, Labour MP
You recently met Obama. Do you regret supporting John McCain?
"No. John McCain is a friend of mine. I've always liked and admired him. He speaks his mind. He's a good friend of the United Kingdom. I've always had a very strong relationship with Barack Obama. But I still see John McCain."

Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist
On the basis of your government's present policies, the IFS predicts child poverty will rise steeply, after nine years of falling. What emergency measures will you now take to correct this trajectory and fulfil your pledge to cut the numbers of children living below the OECD recognised poverty line?
"I note that she doesn't refer to that fact that we've had a series of budgets that have not added to child poverty and the reason is we took steps to increase child tax credits, to demonstrate that while we were making cuts, we were doing so in a way that was fair… There are many things I can do in life, but making Polly happy is not one of them, I'm afraid."

Steve Coogan, comedian
The Daily Mail's silence during the hacking affair was deafening. If, as many suspect, Paul Dacre is found to be "up to his neck in it", will you please please, please give him a "second chance" by making him your director of communications?
"[Laughs] I'd rather have Alan Partridge."

Christina Schmid, war widow
Your father and your son dying while you were holding the reigns of the country seemed only momentarily to pause your pace. How have their deaths affected you, and what was your relationship like with your father? What did he say to you before he died about your political career?
"Well, my son died while I was leader of the opposition, so I did take… probably not enough time out, but I did drop everything for a bit. I had a very strong relationship with my dad. He was an amazing man. Great optimist. Always believed the best about people and thought things would turn out OK. He was very proud of what I was doing. He was always very worried about all the responsibility I was taking on. The last time I saw him properly was when I got him to Chequers just before he went off on the holiday on which he died. I got him upstairs to this lovely room – the long gallery. We sat and had a drink together and a chat… I didn't know it was 'goodbye'. His last bit of advice to me was, 'Do the right thing.' That was always his advice."

Tinie Tempah, rapper
Did you go clubbing when you were in Ibiza?
"No. My wife did, the night before I got there. I went to some very nice restaurants, but I was tucked up in bed at a ludicrously un-Ibizan hour."

Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet
Do you ever worry that if you weren't prime minister you'd be a better father?
"Yes, I do. You'd have more time. The advantage of being prime minister is that you live above the shop, so I do get to see my children more than some dads do because I can pop up and read them a bedtime story and go back to work."

Michael Winner, film director, producer and restaurant critic
On a scale of one to 10, how happy have you been since you became prime minister?
"I haven't really had time to stop and make the calculation. I enjoy this incredibly challenging job. It is a huge honour to do it. It's not meant to make you happy, but if you believe in politics as a vocation, it is a worthwhile thing to do. I won't give a number, Michael, I'm afraid. It's not like one of your restaurant reviews."

Hilary Mantel, author
What are you ashamed of?
"A few things I've done in my past that I'm not going to tell you about."

Mike Leigh, film-maker
What is your moral justification for the state not providing free further education for everybody, and for the principle of student loans? And I do want to hear your moral reasoning: not any economic, political or historic excuses.
"I think there is a strong moral case for this, which is the evidence that going to university brings a benefit to that individual person over the course of the rest of their life. Therefore, I think it is morally right that they make a contribution to the cost of that course, which is what our fees policy does. And I think it would be morally wrong to ask the taxpayer to bear all of the burden of that cost, not least because there are many taxpayers who don't go to university who don't have that benefit."

Ian McEwan, novelist
There's still a very strong general feeling around that wage earners are picking up the tab for the excesses of the banking sector. Why not take seriously the "Robin Hood" campaign? (And don't be blackmailed by bankers' empty threats to move abroad – the proposed levy is tiny on any given transaction.)
"I'm all in favour of the idea of a financial transaction tax, but only if you can do it globally. And while of course it is a tiny tax on transactions, if the effect is that you just move the transactions to another country, you then lose the tax revenue. The EU keep talking about it, but in the end they know the problem is that even if you did it throughout the EU, the transactions would all go outside the EU."

Miranda Hart, comedian
What's the least favourite part of your job (apart from the difficulty of ordering takeaways to Number 10)?
"The thing I dread the most is news of casualties from Afghanistan, because that's the greatest responsibility. The thing that is odd and weird is having to have people open car doors for you because they weigh two tonnes and if you tried to do it yourself you'd cut your leg off."

Richard Branson, businessman
An 18-year-old girl who is dying of liver disease came to me on the street and begged me to use my influence to ask you to change urgently the law in Britain so that she can get a new liver. She believes – and all the research I've done since meeting her shows – that if organ giving could be done on the opt-out system, rather than people having to opt-in, then every single person's needs would be met and the young woman's life and thousands of others' lives would be saved. I'm someone who forgets to fill out forms for my organs to be donated and believe very strongly that the government should pass an emergency law to save this woman's, and thousands of others', lives. Will you support the opt-out policy?
"I think it's very difficult to have a policy that basically says if you haven't filled in the form, your organs can be harvested without your permission. It is a huge leap. But there are hospitals and healthcare systems we can learn from that have encouraged people to sign up to make their organs available. So there's a lot we can do without going the whole hog to opt out."

Mariella Frostrup, writer and broadcaster
What's your favourite line in literature, and why?
"Henry V's speech at Agincourt: 'Men of England who lie in bed...' You think of all that band of brothers, we few… there are more lines in that one speech that have become famous than probably any other."

Eine, graffiti artist whose work Cameron gave to Obama as an official gift in 2010
Imagine it's your stag weekend, which is being organised by Silvio Berlusconi. There are five places spare on the coach. Based solely on their ability to have a good time, which world leaders would you invite (past or present, but they have to be living)? If you don't choose Bill Clinton, why not?
"That is so difficult. I don't know that many past world leaders. I think you probably would choose Bill Clinton because he'd be fascinating to talk to. But God, that's difficult. I like Obama – I always enjoy chatting to him. My new best friend is the president of the Maldives. He's great. That's a weird mixture, isn't it? I like Sarkozy, we'd have fun. And I like John Key, the prime minister of New Zealand."

Jemima Khan, writer and campaigner
Are you aware – and is it true – that your phone was hacked by News Of The World?
"I've absolutely no idea. No one's ever told me. That's a new one on me."

Jamie Oliver, chef
Hi, Mr Cameron. In the light of rocketing obesity rates in the UK and the spiralling costs to the NHS of diet-related diseases, what importance do you personally place upon ensuring that every child in school is taught the key life skills of how to cook for themselves, where food comes from, and how it affects their bodies and their future health. And are you committed to the continued investment in improving school food, particularly in the new academies?
"Yes. Cooking with my own children is one of the things I enjoy most, and when people see the connection between diet and behaviour and obesity and all the rest of it, they see why this is not an add-on but a must-have. But in the end you've got to encourage schools to take this seriously themselves. My own children's school has just put in proper kitchens and food on-site, and my children have given up the packed lunch and gone to the school dinner, and we want to see that happen elsewhere."

Terry Wogan, broadcaster
What does the PM think the public think of him?
"All sorts of things. Of course, there are people who profoundly disagree with you – and sometimes people can get very angry with you. But I think people are basically very fair-minded and as long as they see you trying to do your best, and doing what you believe in, they will be reasonable with you."

Francis Wheen, journalist and broadcaster
What was the last novel you read? And the last nonfiction book?
"I'm reading something called Made In Britain, which is nonfiction. It's a very nice, rather old-fashioned history book about the great figures and inventions of British history. It's just rather good – I've been reading bits with my children. I'm also reading Laurence Of Arabia, by Michael Korda, which is fantastic. And weirdly, I'm also reading Max Hastings' book on Churchill's war years. I'm sort of reading three things at the same time because I don't last very long before I fall asleep. The last novel I read? Gosh, I haven't read one for quite a long time. I read this very good book by this Irish author Paul Murray called Skippy Dies. He very kindly sent me his new book, the name of which I can't for the life of me remember [it's An Evening Of Long Goodbyes], but I dipped into it the other day."

Lord Norman Lamont, former Tory chancellor of the exchequer
If there were no coalition and you were governing as a Conservative prime minister alone, what three things would you most like to have done that you have not been able to do in coalition?
"Further action on welfare reform. Perhaps the control of immigration. But I don't buy the argument that because it's a coalition it's an inactive government. It's a pretty rolled-up sleeves reforming government." [Guardian: And the third?] "I thought two was enough."

Jon Snow, broadcaster
Given Britain's historic links with Israel, is it not time the UK took a more assertive role in bringing about a two-state solution. Why did you abstain in the vote to give the Palestinian state status at Unesco?
"The reason for the abstention is that I don't believe you create a state by making declarations. I believe you create a state by bringing together the two relevant parties – Israel and Palestine, and hammering out an agreement. Britain is doing everything it can to put the pressure on. The problem is, we can't want this more than they want it, and the frustration I have is that it's so clearly in Israel's interest to reach an agreement and we need to persuade them of that."

Riven Vincent, mother who put her disabled daughter (left) into care
Dave, why couldn't you do that one thing, to ensure disabled children have the nappies and incontinence products they need? You made a promise, we are still waiting.
"Some local authorities put a limit on the number of incontinence nappies for disabled children and I know from my own personal experience that there are times that that's not enough, and if you're facing financial difficulties that's a real problem. I went to Riven's house. I spent time talking to her and we went back and checked the health advice, and I think made some changes to it. I'll double-check. In the end, you can't order local authorities what to do, but I think we did change the advice they get from the department of health."

Kirsty Wark, broadcaster
What piece of art has had the most impact on you, and why?
"Picasso's Guernica is one of my favourites. It's one of those pictures you can look at for ages and still find new things in it. A picture that says so much about the nature of conflict and the nature of suffering is very, very powerful."

Jonathan Freedland, Guardian columnist
Now you know the pressures of the job, and how hard it is, do you have sympathy for Gordon Brown and think perhaps you were too harsh in your treatment of him?
"I think in prime minister's questions and in political discourse we can sometimes get very rough and tough in the House of Commons. I don't ever feel I was tougher on Gordon Brown than he was on me. But I recognise that as prime minister he tried hard to do the right thing, as he saw it. And not everything he did was wrong."

Angela Eagle, Labour MP whom Cameron told to 'Calm down, dear'
Your cuts hit women harder than any other group. What's your problem with women?
"It's absolutely true that, when you face a big budget deficit and great debts and all that Angela Eagle's party left us, you have to take some difficult decisions. But I don't accept this characterisation. Labour wants to make a series of political points about cuts and women because they see it to their political advantage."

Nicky Campbell, broadcaster
Will you consider sending your son to Eton?
"I've always said I'd like my children to go through the state system. But I'll always do the right thing for them."

Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey writer
Soon after the election last year, the coalition was memorably portrayed as the cast of Downturn Abbey on the cover of Private Eye. Supporters of both parties were accusing the other of setting the government's agenda. Do you feel you have now achieved a more comfortable balance of power with Mr Clegg, that will allow you to govern without alienating your own electorate?
"Notice Julian's brilliant ability to promote his great series, even in a question to me. I've never accepted the coalition government has acted against the interest of Conservative supporters. Most recognise going into coalition was the right thing, given we didn't win the election."

Rio Ferdinand, footballer
Will the government start providing more facilities and staff for children, such as sports clubs, youth clubs and invest more into apprenticeship schemes?
"Yes, we are investing record amounts in apprenticeship schemes, £360,000 a year. And I'm pleased to say that, because we're returning the lottery to its original good causes, including sport, there will be an extra £135m that will mean more sports facilities."

Alastair Campbell, Labour spin doctor
You fought an election with the fallout from the economic crisis still dominant, people worried about jobs and living standards, MPs expenses having done considerable damage to Labour, Time For A Change as a powerful force, Gordon Brown getting battered daily to take his ratings even lower, with your party's finances in great shape while Labour was close to being bust, a hugely supportive media promoting the image of you as a new leader of a changed or at least changing Tory Party… why on earth didn't you manage to win a majority?
"Well, there's clearly something eating Alastair Campbell. How did I upset him so much? Look, I'm responsible for the election campaign and I take full responsibility for the result. We had a massive mountain to climb. We didn't quite make it over the line. I think that at a time of economic difficulty, people were nervous of change. And we were quite frank that we'd have to make spending reductions and I think that probably held us back."

Jeremy Paxman, broadcaster
After what he said and did on student fees, can you see any reason for the voter believing a word of Nick Clegg's next manifesto?
"My job is not to promote Nick Clegg's next manifesto. As someone to work with in government, we have a good relationship, and I believe we're getting things done for the good of the country. Sorry, that's a bit boring, I'm afraid, but when you do a Jeremy Paxman interview that's the only way through it."

Jacqui Smith, former Labour home secretary
What is the most serious security threat that we currently face?
"Al-Qaida. I think they've been damaged very badly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but clearly they still have evil intent and evil people to carry out that intent. And Britain has to be on a high state of alert, not least because of the Olympics."

Tony Benn, former Labour minister
Under what circumstances, and against whom, would you be prepared to use British nuclear weapons?
"As Tony Benn well knows, the point of having nuclear weapons is to deter people and not to use them, and I'm afraid it's just one of the many subjects where he is splendid to read but splendidly wrong."

Simon Hattenstone, Guardian interviewer
How did your parents react when you were grounded at Eton for smoking cannabis?
"Good try."

Jonathan Ross, broadcaster
Will you or your cabinet be the first to see sense and do something about the expensive, time-consuming and ultimately pointless "war" on drugs. Time to legalise some and legislate others, surely?
"I don't believe in legalisation. If you legalise, you make more available; and if you make more available, you build up a larger problem."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty
The late Tom (Lord) Bingham is often described as the greatest Briton of his lifetime. He famously said of the fundamental freedoms in the Human Rights Act: "Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any of them un-British?" As a critic of both "unelected judges" and the Human Rights Act, how do you answer Bingham's question?
"By saying that of course the freedoms originally written down in the European convention on human rights are things that we'd all want to support. The problem is that the Human Rights Act, in my view, [has been] incorporated into British law in such a way that it's given the courts an ability to come up with a lot of very odd and perverse judgments. What's required is to write a British bill of rights so we can have it set out in our own law, in our own way, so that we don't have strange decisions handed down by Strasbourg."

Nigel Farage, leader of the Ukip party
Why do you refuse to give the British people a referendum on the EU, despite your earlier cast-iron guarantee?
"I made a policy of having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and if the Lisbon treaty had been still extant at the time of government, we would have had a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. I don't believe Britain should leave the European Union, but I do believe there are powers we can retrieve from Europe to have a better balance."

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace
Prime Minister, you famously visited the Arctic and saw for yourself the impacts of climate change. Indeed, the warming is now so rapid that the North Pole could soon be ice-free in the summer. As the ice retreats due to rising temperatures, the oil companies are moving in to drill. As someone who has associated himself with the fight to protect the Arctic, do you support or oppose deep water oil drilling in the Arctic?
"The Arctic issue is a matter for those countries directly concerned. For Britain, we have a strict and tough licensing scheme for oil drilling. I think it's important we maintain our energy independence. And that means continuing to invest in the North Sea. And that does mean looking at some quite deep water drilling, but only under this very strict regulatory regime that has so far been admired in other parts of the world." [Guardian: But he wants your answer in the Arctic.] "But we don't own any of the Arctic." [Guardian: But you can have an opinion on it.] "I think it matters much more what you actually do in your own bailiwick."

Tracey Emin, artist
Dear prime minister, I'm aware that you are a fan of my work, but where do you think I would be if I hadn't received the amazing art education I had?
"I'm a big fan of art education. My wife went to art school and read fine art at Bristol poly, and I think still reaps enormous benefit from having such a great education, so I'm all in favour of us having well-funded art colleges."

Lord Ashdown, Unicef  UK president
What will your pitch be – and what do you expect Nick Clegg's to be – when you both appear before the TV cameras in the leaders debates before the next election?
"I hope it will be that we've dealt with extremely difficult economic circumstances and debts we've inherited, and we've got the country back on the road to both an economic recovery and, I hope, something of a social recovery, too." [Guardian: But how is that different from Nick Clegg's pitch?] "Well, I'm only responsible for my pitch." [Guardian: What do you expect his to be?] "I expect he'll say, 'I agree with David and think you should all support him.' [Laughs]"

Salman Rushdie, novelist
The deep and disproportionately large cuts in the teaching budgets of the arts and humanities departments of British universities have been described by many commentators as evidence of this government's philistinism. Are you not concerned that you are crippling university education in the United Kingdom?
"I completely disagree. What we're doing is making sure that universities will be property funded. What's going to happen is the success of universities and different courses will depend on the choices that students make. Once students are paying the bills, they will be keener on really good courses, really good lecturers, really good materials. So universities will have to respond to that demand and we'll see a strengthening of our university sector."

Katharine Whitehorn, journalist
Do you think the catastrophic situation at Southern Cross old people's care home company, and the abuse at Bristol's private home for young handicapped people will shake your party's rooted conviction that private and profit-driven provision of service must always be better than public provision?
"I don't believe private provision is always better. There are brilliant examples of state provision, voluntary provision and private provision. As Chairman Mao once said, what matters is not whether a cat is black or white but whether it catches mice. Or was it him? Either way, it was a great quote." [It was Deng Xiaoping.]

Alexis Petridis, Guardian music critic
You said the Jam's song Eton Rifles was important to you when you were at Eton. Paul Weller, who wrote the song, was pretty incredulous to hear this, and claimed you couldn't have understood the lyrics. What did you think that song was about at the time? Be honest.
"I went to Eton in 1979, which was the time when the Jam, the Clash, the Sex Pistols were producing some amazing music and everyone liked the song because of the title. But of course I understood what it was about. It was taking the mick out of people running around the cadet force. And he was poking a stick at us. But it was a great song with brilliant lyrics. I've always thought that if you can only like music if you agree with the political views of the person who wrote it, well, it'd be rather limiting."

Peter Kosminsky, film director
The NHS is the most dearly loved of British institutions. You made no reference to sweeping changes in its structure in your election manifesto. How, in good faith, can you now seek such changes just weeks after you came to power? Isn't this exactly the kind of dishonesty and breach of trust with the electorate that has led to dangerous levels of disillusionment with the political process in this country?
"I recognise that we had left behind too many of the public and too many of the professionals on this, which is why we had a pause in the process and listened to people. The full abolition of the primary care trust is what some people point to (that wasn't in our manifesto), but I would say that was a fairly natural evolution. If you're going to put doctors and clinicians in charge of decision-making and commissioning, then inevitably you have to ask the question, 'What are all these local bureaucracies for?'"

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
David, Do you think that every child in the UK should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, and have you done enough, as prime minister, to make this opportunity a reality?
"We are spending £82.5m on our new music strategy and we're going to do more to try and make sure this money gets through where it is needed. I was profoundly unmusical at school and only managed to play the drums in the school band. I got about as far as Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree. So I'd like the opportunity for my children and other children to do better."

Philip Pullman, author
Why, when other countries such as France and Germany find no difficulty in including long-term considerations (the effect on unemployment, the protection of living city centres, the preservation of the craft base) into questions of procurement, do we insist on going only for the cheapest option and damn every other consequence?
"Very good question. We are conducting a review of procurement right now. There are rules in Europe to stop people just picking the national champion and forbidding anyone else to apply, and it's very important that we apply those rules. But there is a case that we over-interpret the rules and as a result don't make them work for Britain."

Fiona Phillips, TV presenter
Isn't the Big Society just a way to get ordinary people to step in and supply services for the most vulnerable – essential services that the state should be providing, but isn't any more because of Conservative party cuts?
"No, I don't accept that for a minute. The fact is that Britain has always had a big society approach of treasuring and valuing voluntary bodies, charities, faith groups, churches – all the elements of civic society. My point is, should we try and do more of that? And the answer to that question is yes."

Toby Young, journalist and free-school founder
Do you keep a diary?
"No, I've never been a diary keeper. I'm too tired to write anything down at the end of the day."

Bill Bryson, author
A lot of people in positions of responsibility seem to want to cover your glorious countryside in pylons. Can't you do anything to constrain them?
"There is a very big cost, but there are occasions when it makes sense to bury [the cables] and, as someone who loves the countryside, if it's possible to bury more, I'm all for it."

David Blanchflower, economist
There are one million youngsters under the age of 25 currently without a job. How are you going to prevent them becoming a lost generation?
"As David knows, there is no simple answer. You've got to improve the quality of education so you don't have children falling out of school at 16 without skills, you've got to have proper apprenticeships that take people from school into work, you've got to make sure that there are training programmes to help those who can't find jobs. Youth unemployment went up in the years of economic growth as well as recession, so this is a deep underlying problem with the British economy that we have to solve."

Clare Balding, broadcaster
If you had to swap jobs with one other current world leader, who in turn would then lead our country, and why?
"That's a difficult one. Who wants to take on the deficit, the debt, the problems? I often think there are brilliant politicians in other countries, but if they tried to run each others' countries it'd all go disastrously wrong. So it doesn't really work, I'm afraid."

Charlie Brooker, Guardian columnist
According to Private Eye, earlier this year you personally intervened on behalf of Rebekah Brooks to convince Rupert Murdoch to let her keep her job. Is that true, and if it isn't, how true isn't it?
"It's not true."

Jarvis Cocker, musician
Re: abstract finance ideas such as derivatives and futures, do you actually understand how all that stuff works? And if so, can you explain what a derivative and future are?
"I do. I worked for a company where one of my jobs was actually to present and explain the company to its investors, so I do have a reasonable understanding of shares, derivatives and futures and all the rest of it. A future, very simply put, is when you are effectively buying something in the future. A derivative is something that is related to an underlying stock or share. Of course, there's speculation that this is pointless and does not create any wealth or value. We shouldn't write off all derivatives and futures, because, of course, if you're a farmer you might want to sell your next crop now at a future price, or you might want to protect yourself – hedging effectively – against wild fluctuations in the wheat price, the grain price, the sheep price. So, while the tragedy is that it's become a sort of great casino that has caused some of the problems we've had, the original purpose was to try and help give people some stability. There we are. Not as punchy as Jarvis Cocker on Michael Jackson, but it's the best I can do. I was there that night, at the Brit awards. I saw him led away. I saw his bum."


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August 22 2011

What Cameron's passion for Emin really means

The prime minister has installed a neon artwork by the controversial artist in No 10. What would Melanie Phillips say?

This week's unveiling of a neon artwork by Tracey Emin in 10 Downing Street looks very much like an attempt to balance the new image of Cameron the moral conservative backlash-surfer with a sop to contemporary cultural cool. For any remaining liberal supporters of the coalition, don't despair – here's an Emin to show how modern Cameron really is.

Emin is 48 but her art still carries the tag "young British". A neon by her in No 10 can only signal youth, glamour, and a dash of naughtiness. It even alludes to her great themes of love and lust in its slogan "more passion". Wow, the prime minister must really be down with the kids, we are presumably supposed to think. Is that why he is locking so many of them up?

Right now the prime minister is standing shoulder to shoulder with conservative pundits who claim the riots are the result of decades of liberal rot. If there is an icon of such supposed rot – never mind who she votes for – surely it is Emin? This woman first became famous because she put the names of her lovers on a tent. She photographed herself sitting in a pile of cash and appeared drunk on live television. Her much-debated Turner prize exhibit was an unmade bed cluttered with evidence of a lifestyle the columnist Melanie Phillips, whose trenchant social views Cameron now appears to side with, would have no trouble diagnosing as morally sick and probably the product of a broken home.

In the Sunday Express this weekend the prime minister appealed directly to older voters scared stiff of the rampaging young. Emin is exactly what many older conservatives loathe - a defiantly unrespectable woman who will never seem "middle class" however rich she becomes. Emin is in her own description Mad Tracey from Margate, and whatever you think of her art, a stern moral example it is not. What does it really mean, this Downing Street neon?

Perhaps it means Cameron does not mean a word of what he says. His new rigidity is as fake as his old capaciousness. The new conservatism is a cynical appeal to voters who are themselves filled with contradictions. There has been no sudden change since the riots in how people amuse themselves, and laughing at freak shows such as Big Brother and The X Factor remains popular. In other words, as is the way of things, those who call for a moral reform of society do not include themselves, or their tastes, in the reform. In the same spirit of glibly refusing to think anything through, Cameron installs a work of art by Britain's most "immoral" artist even as he calls on the nation to change its ways. More passion? I don't think so.

Tony Blair has criticised Cameron's "highfalutin wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally." It is a reminder of how different they actually are as politicians. Blair associated New Labour with new culture, but there were no direct affiliations between him and any particular artist (Blair notoriously mistook a novelist for an artist at the opening of Tate Modern). And that is wise: get too close to artists and you open up all kinds of ironies. Especially if you propose to clean up Britain while cosying up to one of its most gifted creators of filth.


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July 12 2011

Tech Weekly podcast: New government data, smartphone explosion

On this week's programme, we're reporting on the smartphone market, a handset ecosystem that's set to reach critical mass in the next 23 months. Once more than half the UK population has access to all the features, what will this mean for how we consume online content, and for trends in the UK software development market?

Also, David Cameron launched the UK's latest open data initiative, releasing a new tranche of public data for use by developers. What new insights can be gained, and has this data been specifically chosen to advance the Tory agenda?

We spend a lot of time talking about privacy issues on this podcast, but most of it related to the corporations behind social networks, search engines and other publishing systems. So what about punters who hijack computers for the sake of art? A New York-based artist has been detained by the US secret service for "fraud and related activities" for uploading software on public computers at Apple stores around the city and then capturing images of shoppers looking at the screens.

Plus Jemima steps into the Elevator with Mark McLaughlin of Ticket ABC.

Don't forget to...

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May 12 2011

Convincing chaos: is Cameron the Pollock of politics?

The abstract master threw paint in the air with authoritative results. Has the PM perfected this art of improvisation?

Is David Cameron the Jackson Pollock of British politics? Pollock threw and flicked paint into the air and somehow it landed on his canvases in ways that are authoritative and convincing. Cameron seems to throw policies, opinions and loyalties around with the same abandon and again, the results look authoritative – in his case to voters.

The surprise of the recent polls was how well the Conservatives did, as well as their success in getting the referendum result they wanted. It is now impossible to ignore the truth that Cameron is the most effective politician to emerge in Britain since early Blair. But can modern art offer a way to understand his appeal?

In theory, a lot of things Cameron does ought to make him look incompetent to the public. I am not trundling out a dogmatic list of leftwing criticisms here – what would be the point, right now? – but instead refer the reader to an editorial in the Daily Telegraph this week:

"The country doesn't want a love-in, it wants competence. This is being delivered only fitfully, for Downing Street still has not adapted fully to the new politics. The prime minister has work to do to ensure that not only his office but also his deputy's work more efficiently."  

The most spectacular example of incompetence has been the casual attempt to tear apart the NHS, although if Keynesian economists are right, the true mistake will prove to be economic policy. So why is Cameron so popular? Could Jackson Pollock offer an answer?

Pollock denied there was "chaos" in his art but its excitement comes from his flirtation with failure, his daring the random. In his great works, there is a grace and playfulness of colour and line that defies disaster and soars with a unique sense of freedom. It offers a joy different from that which a conventional, carefully drawn painting might give. In other words, Pollock is an improviser, and great improvisation has a magic that more orderly, planned art cannot match – it communicates freedom, life, and naturalness.

You can extend this to other arts. Pollock saw the connection between his own art and the improvisations of jazz musicians. Similarly in the world of film, Marlon Brando's improvising naturalness has a mystique that nothing else approaches.

I think it helps to understand Cameron if we see him as an improviser like Pollock and his peers in other fields. The virtue of improvisation in art or politics is that it makes you seem – because you are – more natural, direct, vital. In this art, mistakes are not all bad – they can become virtues because they enhance the spontaneity. "To err is human ..." If people really are responding to Cameron like an audience dazzled and charmed by a virtuoso improviser, this is a major problem for his opponents, because his readiness to concede errors adds to the performance, as – bizarrely – do the errors themselves.

Politicians are widely seen as remote, baffling, inhuman figures and the one who can break that image and come across as an actual person is marked out as a big winner. Cameron's comedy of errors offers no solace for his enemies, as he spins out a curling midair line of blue paint that lands, hey presto, just where he needs it to be in a new political landscape that is getting less abstract all the time.


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February 03 2011

How British culture turned Tory

British culture is going through a blue period, with actors, musicians and artists all happily admitting that they're privately educated Conservative toffs. What happened?

You may have missed it, but early last month, a very telling photograph appeared in the newspapers. Snapped on New Year's Day by a couple out for a walk on Coombe Hill in the Chilterns, it featured a party of eight – including David and Samantha Cameron, education secretary Michael Gove, film director Tim Burton, and the latter's extremely posh other half Helena Bonham Carter. According to subsequent gossip, the latter couple had been introduced to the Camerons by Bonham Carter's one-time Westminster school contemporary Nick Clegg. Others suggest that the two couples have been friends for years.

The group had reportedly stayed at Chequers, the prime minister's country retreat, on New Year's Eve – where the conversation doubtless turned to Bonham Carter's role in The King's Speech, the most accomplished example to date of our new appetite for tales of troubled bluebloods and intrigue on country estates. In its own way, then, this was an image of the New Britain as telling as Tony Blair's famous Downing Street encounter with Noel Gallagher: proof of a new blurring of Tory politics and popular culture that speaks volumes about our times.

Other examples abound. There is surely a deeply zeitgeisty aptness to the fact that Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has recently become a working Tory peer. Though whispers about her own arrival in the upper house have died down, TV's aristo homebuyer and make-and-mend guru Kirstie Allsopp remains an equally fervent supporter of the Conservatives. And what about Gilbert & George, apparently enthusiastic Tories whose civil partnership and combination of tweedy tradition and metropolitan urbanity surely make them honorary Cameroons? "We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly," George said in 2009. "She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different."

Last year, Tracey Emin came good on pre-election talk about her pro-Tory leanings – sparked by her loud opposition to Labour's 50p tax rate – by claiming Britain now had "the best government we've ever had". On the campaign trail, David Cameron launched Tory plans for a new National Citizen Service with Michael Caine, and a proposed national "School stars" talent contest in the company of Take That's Gary Barlow. "There's no one more with-it than David," the latter assured an audience in Nantwich, Cheshire; by way of returning the compliment, Cameron hailed Take That as "Britain's best ever boyband".

For sure, there remain plenty of celebrity Tory endorsers who do not push quite the same A-list buttons, and instead suggest a time-honoured mixture of seaside summer seasons, golf jumpers and ITV: Cilla Black, Ronnie Corbett, William "Ken Barlow" Roache, Joan Collins, the ex-pop star and I'm A Celebrity contestant David Van Day. Pulses did not exactly quicken when they were joined by such names as Matt Willis, an erstwhile member of the teen-pop trio Busted, and Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley.

Yet the main point is inarguable: there is a whiff of stardust around the Tories that would once have been unthinkable. It's easily forgotten now, but there were very serious rumours about Mark Ronson DJing at the 2009 Tory conference, and giving Cameron a public endorsement. Now, in a twist no one would have seen coming, Courtney Love recently attended a "Port and Policy" debate organised by Oxford University's Conservative Association, and was given the post of "non-executive officer for rock'n'roll". Photos of the accompanying revellers show Love – who is dating Kirstie Allsopp's art dealer brother, Henry – dutifully posing in front of a union flag with a mostly-male array of student Tories, who look about as non-rock'n'roll as you might imagine. What Kurt Cobain would have made of it all is anyone's guess.

There is, then, something afoot: a waning of the old stigma that got in the way of "creatives" backing the Tories, and resulted in any who did facing loud ridicule. Consider the case of the synth-pop icon Gary Numan – these days a name it's perfectly OK to drop, with a dependable cult following. Back in the 1980s, his public statements of support for the Thatcher government made him a music press pariah, and played some role in his fall (as late as 2003, however, he was unrepentant: "Thatcher had a clear idea about everything and seemed to be massively pro-British against the rest of the world," he said). In 2010, by contrast, the other Gary's campaigning for the Tories caused no career damage whatsoever: it simply stood as an above-average photo opportunity, crashlanded on the evening news, and was promptly forgotten.

So what has changed? Cameron's diligent attempts to rebrand his party by affecting the role of the modern, bike-riding urban dad and paying endless tributes to his favourite rock bands have undoubtedly helped. The same applies to the feting of his supposedly switched-on wife.

Much more important, though, is the wider context. Whether austerity will bring a renewed ideological charge to the relationship between politics and culture is an interesting point: certainly, the famous names who have protested about arts cuts and library closures suggest that very familiar battle-lines are already reappearing. That said, we still largely live in the post-Blair age, in which the right-left divide is not nearly as entrenched as it once was, and people's political preferences count for much less. Whisper it, then – but after decades of ignominy, it might just be OK to be a pop-culture Conservative.

In any case, the arts are aligning themselves with the Tories in ways much more subtle and insidious than simple endorsements. Just as New Labour managed to slot itself into the wider moment known as Cool Britannia, so there are lines that can be drawn from musicians, actors, film-makers and novelists to people at the top of government. Here, the arriviste likes of Barlow are less important than a new elite who speak with the same accents as people at the top, and attest to a simple fact: the privately educated seem to be newly dominant, and a sharp change of tone and taste stretches from politics, to the arts, and beyond.

The demotic affectations – glottal stops, photo-ops in greasy spoon cafes, an affected love of football – that were obligatory 15 years ago have completely disappeared. Last year, there was a flurry of news coverage when the Word magazine discovered that during one week in October, 60% of the acts in the UK charts came from privately educated backgrounds. When this story was revived last week in an item on the Today programme it brought a furious emailed response from one Jane Blount, better known as the mother of that renowned Harrow alumnus James Blunt.

Barely a day goes past, it seems, when you cannot pick up a newspaper and find the latest sensation in music, or film, or literature, expounding on an early life of dormitories, tuck shops and "prep". Take, for example, the actor Dominic West – AKA Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, and just cast in an ITV drama as the serial killer Fred West. He went to Eton, his wife is a former countess, he has a daughter from a relationship with a member of the Astor dynasty, and he is – but of course – a friend of the Camerons. He is also said to have once had a soft spot for the prime minister's wife. When asked, he has occasionally seemed uneasy about his background, though he has tended to end up sounding much the same rather questionable notes as the Old Etonians in government. "It probably helps that we now live in a meritocracy," he mused two years ago, "so we don't need to worry where people came from."

Earlier this month, the Daily Mail roundly ignored such sentiments, and captured the new mood in a list of "Britain's 50 most powerful posh people under 30": they included Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, the rather irksome comedian Jack Whitehall, two members of the "nu-folk" sensations Mumford & Sons, and Sophie Winkleman, better known as Big Suze from Peep Show.

Accompanying the list was a piece by Dylan Jones, the long-standing editor of GQ, another supporter of the Tories, and the author of the in-his-own words book Cameron On Cameron. "Privately educated scions of the great and the good no longer feel that everyone is against them," he wrote.

"What is more, they are happy to proclaim their status and to exploit it. Look around you. So many fields of public life are now dominated by those with, at the very least, a private education, [and] in many cases wealth and in a few instances a title. In the arts, sport, television, fashion, music, nightlife and, of course, politics, it's positively Brideshead Revisited Revisited."

Or, if you prefer, Born To Rule Britannia.


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November 09 2010

Only Britain can beg for scraps from China and tell them how to behave | Simon Jenkins

David Cameron says he will drum up trade in China, and tackle human rights. It is an exercise in bluff concealing hypocrisy

How do you beg the Chinese for money and yet hold your nose and tell them how awful they are? The Merchant of Venice dilemma is old as diplomacy. Today it clearly vexed the David Cameron on his much-hyped visit to Beijing. The British empire may be dead, but a nagging desire to rule the world, or at least tell it how to behave, is embedded in the genes of every British politician.

Cameron seems overwhelmed these days by the evils and injustices of other peoples. He deplores the Burmese for daring to hold a dud election. He finds it "unacceptable" that the Iranians should stone women to death. The Indians are lovely, but they really must try to be less corrupt. As for the Chinese, when will they stop arresting Nobel prize-winners and persecuting artists, especially when Britain has just asked one to fill Tate Modern with glass porcelain seeds, "to raise awareness" of communist cruelty?

The current British delegation to China is strangely reminiscent of Colonel Younghusband's 1904 expedition to Tibet. Cameron has taken with him a retinue of four cabinet ministers, dozens of celebrity businessmen whom he has made ambassadors during the trip, and a cartload of publicists and hacks. The intention is not just to drum up trade but clearly to cure the heathens of their sinful ways.

The prime minister is thus bombarded with advice on how to "dialogue but not lecture" – be critical but understanding, delicate but firm – when dealing with fiendish orientals. He must "explain where we differ" and inform his hosts that the British people strongly disapprove of their customs, such as jailing and hanging dissidents, suppressing free speech and putting leading artists under house arrest. This Cameron must do and yet not provoke the Chinese into showing him the door. Like Shakespeare's Antonio, he must not drive them to Shylock's sarcastic response: "You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies / I'll lend you thus much moneys?"

Diplomacy has long been an exercise in bluff concealing hypocrisy. The truth of the matter is that there is nothing we can do about China's internal affairs or how it treats its people. We have had no lien on the Chinese mainland since the Boxer rebellion. If we are offended by how communists behave we have a respectable option. We can have nothing to do with them. We need not trade with China. We can refuse visas to its citizens, and declare China a no-go country for British investment. At the very least we can treat China as a country with which we deal only when required to do so for the conduct of international relations.

Yet money has trumped moral outrage. For a decade Britain has been obsequious towards China. Its media gasp in wonder at the Chinese economy. Business people eulogise the great leap forward of "red capitalism", praising the industry, the work ethic, the rate of growth, the export drive, the size of China's marketplace.

In 2008 Gordon Brown grovelled to participate in an outrageous Chinese publicity stunt, welcoming a posse of stooges running an Olympic torch to Downing Street. The whole Olympics farrago involved Britain turning a blind eye, as hundreds of dissidents were locked up, thousands of Beijing's historic buildings were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of citizens were evicted from their homes, all to make way for the "one world, one dream" games. British ministers on Olympic partnership junkets had "to raise the question of human rights" at every meeting. It became a running bad joke, a diplomatic breaking of wind.

Now we are at it again. We lie panting on the floor, begging for scraps from China's table, yet somehow requiring them to be wrapped in a "win" of some dissident being released from detention. How does Cameron square this ethical circle? With 20 plastic smiles gazing at him across the table, does he preface a reference to car factories, hypermarkets and science partnerships with a nervous cough and a "Forgive me, prime minister, if I mention a certain freedom-loving peace-prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, whose incarceration at your pleasure is of deep concern to my Witney constituents"? Does he add his worry over Ai Weiwei, of porcelain bean fame? Artists can be difficult chaps, he might add, and Weiwei's beans have caused huge bother to Britain's health and safety authorities. Perhaps we could bring in the British Council to sort things out.

I have been at such ridiculous masquerades in the past, and know how the Chinese respond. They first ignore everything and wait for what they regard as a spasm of western rudeness to pass. If pressed, they go into conclave and agree to forgive the foreigners; the lack of manners is doubtless the result of an Eton education. As for the subject itself, what on earth has it to do with Britain, or with Anglo-Chinese trade? The last time Britain meddled in such matters it resulted in opium wars.

Europe has long imported food from the Americas, minerals from Africa and manufactures from the Far East. Only Britain demands that such trade be dressed up in feel-good meetings and ethical decontamination certificates. Only Britain goes into trade negotiations wearing the cross of St George amid choruses of Hail Mary.

Such grandstanding diplomacy may give Cameron a statesman-like buzz and win plaudits from leader writers and the Anglo-Chinese lobby back home. But it makes no difference to the plight of the persecuted Chinese, except possibly to exacerbate their persecution. Meanwhile, it risks undermining whatever benefit to trade might come from the visit.

One day perhaps China will have enough of this posturing and send a return delegation to London. Before discussing British lingerie exports, the Chinese will profess a "deep concern" at Britain's prison overcrowding, control orders, housing benefit reform and cap on student fees. They will "raise awareness" of Abu Hamza's detention, the persecution of asylum-seeking children and house flipping by MPs.

Finally the delegation might beg advice on democracy. How can they arrange for seats in the houses of parliament to be sold to wealthy businessmen, or handed down from father to son? How could an election be fixed so the party that comes third finds itself in power? And perhaps Cameron could lend Beijing his admirable Mr Gove, to advise on the dictatorial centralisation of the Tibetan education service.

That feels better, the Chinese might say. How about those lingerie contracts?


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November 07 2010

Ai Weiwei's plea to David Cameron

I was put under house arrest in Beijing. Though here to promote trade, the prime minister mustn't ignore our human rights

On my trip to London this year, for the launch of my installation at the Tate Modern, I went to the Houses of Parliament. I watched a debate on education and children, and was deeply impressed.

It was a perfect model for democratic practice. Of course, every society has its own problems, but I think Britain is a society where important issues can be discussed and politicians can constantly adjust their positions in order to improve conditions.

As David Cameron arrives here, he should understand that China is a nation that still has very limited freedom of speech and access to information, and which does not have public elections for its own leaders or an independent judicial system.

When you have strict censorship of the internet, young students cannot receive a full education. Their view of the world is imbalanced. There can be no true discussion of the issues.

The Communist party benefits the most from China's so-called development, and despite the economic growth a lot of people still suffer misfortunes. All those problems became even stronger when China was struggling to be the labourer of the world market.

Now all the nations of the developed world are trying to do business with China. Of course, it's an arrangement in which both sides profit. But on the Chinese side it means more unfairness to labourers and damage to the environment. This kind of business is done through the sacrifice of basic values and human dignity.

People are not looking for mercy, but we think the world has to become unified. You cannot simply give up fundamental beliefs in human rights for a short-term gain.

This kind of thinking will cause tragedy in the future. It is going to be a strong challenge for the nations of the world to survive economically and at the same time protect civilised values, which come from the long struggle of science and humanitarianism.

We see the tendency in the world to criticise democracy and sometimes even to say that authoritarian countries like China are more efficient. That is very short-sighted. China looks efficient only because it can sacrifice most people's rights. This is not something the west should be happy about. In a town like Guangzhou there are thousands of workers who suffer injuries such as losing fingers in work accidents. They are on low salaries. They have no future.

Since the global economic crisis began, the change in global attitudes is clear to see – and I think it is pitiful. Barack Obama came to China and he is probably the only president of the United States never to mention the words "human rights" in public. You see it in France, with Hu Jintao's visit last week. How can people be so short-sighted? How can they betray those basic values?

Now the British are coming. I think Cameron should ask the Chinese government not to make people "disappear" or to jail them merely because they have different opinions. No nation can survive and meet the major challenges if it does not have people with different opinions. China should have an open society to discuss different issues and ideologies. It cannot just put its best minds behind bars. There are too many cases where this is happening.

Cameron should say that the civilised world cannot see China as a civilised country if it doesn't change its own behaviour. I don't believe that these are western values. These are universal values. No one is forcing China to accept values from outside – they are just asking it to listen to its own people.

• Ai Weiwei, co-designer of the Beijing Olympic stadium, is due to be released from house arrest in the Chinese capital tonight at midnight


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November 05 2010

Say cheese, prime minister

Until David Cameron moved into No 10, no prime minister had ever had a full-time photographer

Churchill at the siege of Sidney Street or cigar grasped in one hand, V for victory the other. Lloyd George with his flowing locks. Wilson with his pipe and cardigan, Attlee with his homburg hat. Thatcher's white scarf on top of a tank.

Nothing about photographing politicians is non-political. Politicians have used the photograph to try to promote their image for years. Ever since Margaret Thatcher allowed Herbie Knott to photograph her applying her make-up at her dressing table and the media fascination with the private lives of politicians intensified, the demand for "behind the scenes" material has increased.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown kept their family life as private as possible but David Cameron has allowed the cameras into his home and the Conservative party employed a photographer, Andrew Parsons, during the election to take "candid" pictures of him on the campaign trail. The pictures were quality material but I thought the results were mixed. In a sense they rode on the back of a tradition of photojournalistic impartiality – until you realised how carefully selected they were. It is to the media's shame that many were used without accurate attribution to Conservative Central Office.

The pictures that politicians fear – and let's remember that they warrant barely a footnote in most political biographies – are the offbeat ones or the ones where photocalls go wrong. Major and Brown with head in hands as though in despair. David Miliband with his banana. Thatcher walking through an industrial wasteland on Teesside. Kinnock slipping on the Brighton pebbles while trying to rescue his wife from the surf.

Blair's image was very carefully managed throughout – unlike Thatcher – and to the assembled photographer fury, he refused to get on top of a tank (this was in 1996). Later he did allow me and others limited access to No 10 and his life on the road as a prime minister – access unprecedented and gratefully accepted as a result. Like Cameron's, the pictures – man working in his office, on the phone, in a corridor, on a train etc etc – were not actually that interesting and Blair's biography showed a more intriguing man than any of his photographs betrayed.

It seems to be towards the end of their careers that prime ministers, with power slipping away, begin to reveal something of their true natures: Ken Lennox's Thatcher in tears leaving No 10 for the last time, Dan Chung's picture of a strained Blair riding in a helicopter in southern Iraq, and my own photographs of Gordon Brown with his children inside No 10 in the last few hours before going to the palace – an unprecedented, and incidentally, totally unplanned, opportunity.

Upfront and personal, however, I've often come across a certain odd fragility in prime ministers. Something to do with the demand to relate and behave like an "ordinary" person when a photographer shows up for that very intimate moment which is the taking of a picture. Obsequiousness tends not to make good pictures of politicians – unless you happen to be Thomas Gainsborough or George Romney – and in a sense photographers are that unusual thing for them, a person just getting on with doing their job just as they might with anybody else.

I guess if you are accustomed to being surrounded by the sycophancy of power that can be unsettling. "I wore it especially for you," said Blair about the rather nice blue jumper he was wearing in the Downing Street garden one day and I thought, "Well, you're the prime minister, you can wear what you like surely – but thanks for the thought anyway!"

Cameron's non-stick image has, as yet, no rough edges. None of his photographs show a man under the stress of power or indeed the stress of fatherhood. Perhaps this is something to do with an assurance imposed by a public school education, perhaps by the division of responsibilities in a coalition, but as the premiership moves on, the stress will increase and the pictures will be more interesting as a result. The Conservatives' photographer is now a civil servant – the first ever Downing Street permanent photographer – and as I understand it is to photograph the official occasions, the "grip and grins", the line-ups, the photo calls. The "fly on the wall" stuff is no more for the moment but, Andy, grab the opportunities when you can – a few years down the line when Cameron is on the lecture circuit and the rest of us are hanging up our cameras for good, you should have an unprecedented photographic record of a seat of power.


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July 21 2010

Eine who?

David Cameron's choice of present for President Obama propelled a largely unknown street artist into the limelight. So what does Ben Eine make of the accolade?

'So it's been a weird day today," says the most recent posting on Ben Eine's website. "David Cameron has given one of my paintings to President Obama." Weird indeed. You wake up one morning as a street artist known to few outside the aficionados of Britain's urban art scene, and go to bed as the man whose work the new prime minister, for his first official visit to Washington, chose to present to the president of the United States.

"It's quite mad, really," says Eine (real name Ben Flynn), whose early creative life as a particularly productive graffiti artist earned him 15 or 20 arrests, five convictions for criminal damage and, on the final occasion, a narrow escape from jail. "But it's OK. It's not the kind of recognition I seek or get every day, but Cameron seems quite a positive kind of guy and Obama's a dude. I would probably have had issues if it had been for Bush."

But the gift – and attendant publicity – should bring Eine more than recognition. Described by the Nelly Duff gallery in London's Columbia Road, which has been selling his work for the last five years, as "a screen printer of technical brilliance . . . one of the hardest-working and most prolific street artists working today", he can also expect a considerable improvement in his income.

"We've had very significant interest already," says the gallery's Cassius Colman. "He had a fairly large fan base among people who know about street art, but now . . . If people were considering a purchase, this will push them over the edge. I'd say we were probably looking at a tenfold increase in his sales."

Eine, 39, is best known in and around Shoreditch in the East End of London, where he has worked for several years with his close friend, the elusive Banksy. "They're the best of mates, old friends," says Lindsay Alkin, manager of the Artrepublic gallery in Brighton, which also sells the artist's work. "Banksy would do one side of the street and Ben the other, and Ben did all Banksy's screenprints. He's one of the founders of the whole street-art movement. But this is really going to broaden his audience: we've had a great deal of interest this morning. And we've sold one of his originals."

Eine last came to the media's attention when he persuaded the shopkeepers of Middlesex Street in Spitalfields to allow him to paint the entire alphabet, in his trademark vibrant, cheerful colours, on their closed security shutters. Elsewhere in London, his letters spell out whole words – "Exciting" or "Scary" or "Vandalism" – on walls and buildings, or just stand on their own: a solitary "e" or "a" adorning a shopfront or telecomm box. There's a Googlemap of his London work, but similar typographical totems can also be seen in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Paris, as well as Newcastle and Hastings, where he now lives.

"For me, it's mostly about having stuff on the street," Eine says. "You're walking down the street, you do it every day, and suddenly there's something that wasn't there yesterday: something bright and cheerful and different. It might stay there for a year; maybe it will disappear. But you know, I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have to make a living. So I do the screenprints too." (Among the cognoscenti, Eine is widely admired as an expert screenprinter, and holds the unofficial world record for the number of colours across an edition: 77 across 200 prints.)

It wasn't easy, once Downing Street had called to say Samantha Cameron really liked his work, to find an Eine suitable for a US president. "A lot of my paintings have quite negative meanings, but painted in a bright and cheerful way," Eine says. "All of those had to be written off straight away; you can't give something that might be misinterpreted." Eventually, he remembered his painting of the letters TWENTYFIRSTCENTURYCITY, laid out on black, in seven rows. "I emailed it, and they said yes straight away," Eine says. "It works pretty well, I think."

Will he sell more work now? "I would imagine, people being what they are, that some more of them might want a piece of it. It's definitely good news."


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May 05 2010

General election 2010: your questions answered

It's the most exciting and perplexing race in ages. From dead heats to Afghanistan to Nick Clegg's hair, our experts tackle your posers

Election night

Is it worth staying up on election night to see Hazel Blears lose her seat?

davidabsalom

No – if that's your only hope, there's no point turning on the TV. First, she'll probably win: she has a 10,000 majority. Second, the result isn't due until 3am – any joy you feel will be crushed by other results by then. Third, she doesn't deserve to lose. There are many worse MPs (see question "why is this election so male?").

Does anyone take any notice of the number of spoilt ballot papers in an election?

davidabsalom

Yes – and they get counted. 188,000 people cast them in 2005. A quarter were disqualified because people voted for more than one candidate, and two-thirds because they were blank. Britain's top seat for wasted votes was Gloucester, where more than 1,000 were cast. And no – if you write a rude limerick about Gordon Brown, they won't read it out at the count.

What happens if Labour and the Tories get exactly the same number of seats? Does it go to a coin-toss?

lairoflard

Individual candidates draw lots if they win identical votes, but there is no provision for a coin-toss between the leaders where the number of seats is tied. The cabinet secretary's draft rule book for forming governments makes plain that whenever the parliamentary arithmetic is uncertain, the serving prime minister is entitled to make the first attempt to get a Queen's speech through. And if, when the crunch votes come, the votes are exactly tied, then the Speaker by convention casts a deciding vote in support of the government of the day.

The politicos

What, Labour and Lib Dems, if any, is the ideological difference between your parties?

wengerball

All the difference in the world. Labour is a collectivist party; the Liberal Democrats are liberals. Both believe in social justice, but see different routes to get there. If you like the state, you'll love another five years of Labour rule. If not, better go Lib Dem.

What qualifies George Osborne, a man who had two jobs before moving to Conservative central office, to be chancellor of the exchequer?

pov1

The cheap answer is that he is a friend of David Cameron. The fair one is that he's very bright. Don't rule him out just because he looks annoying on TV. Rule him out, if you like, because you fear his economic policy. And on a wider point: what qualified Gordon Brown to be chancellor, apart from years as a student political hack and about 25 minutes as a TV researcher. Oh – now I see your point …

Is Nick Clegg's hair actually ginger?

Viscountbiscuit

Look, it's not just about brown hair and darker brown hair. That's the old system and, I don't know about you, but I'm tired of that system. It doesn't work. Last week, I met Jackie in Stockport and she said: "I work, my husband works, and at the end of the day we want to relax by making jokes about the PM's hair. Is that too much to ask?" No, Jackie, it isn't. People are looking for a third way. It's time for the auburn way.

Why is this election so MALE?!

Helenoftroy

Because the party leaders are, and because most journalists are, and because local parties – full of women activists – keep choosing male candidates. Plus Gordon Brown alienated his women ministers. Plus some Tories are sexist, and the Lib Dems haven't changed their selection system. It's everyone's fault.

The economy

Is it fair that public sector workers should face cuts to pay for the devastation wrought on the economy by the private sector?

Kovgos

Of course it's not. But when it comes to taking an axe to the public sector, all the main parties sound pretty bloodthirsty. The Conservatives want to make the biggest cuts, while Labour would spread the pain slightly more fairly between that and raising taxes on the better-off. The Lib Dems are – surprise! – somewhere between the two. Yet none go as far as John Major in the 90s who split the bill between spending cuts and tax rises fifty-fifty.

The gap between rich and poor is widening. A significant proportion of our population live below the poverty level. How can you not support the unilateral introduction of the Robin Hood tax?

playnicely

There are two questions here. One, would a tax on bank transactions reduce the wealth gap? To which the answer is: probably not. Two, would more taxes on the banks be a good idea – and it sounds like we agree that it would. The Lib Dems and the Tories have plans to go ahead and impose such taxes. Brown says he needs other countries to join in to make a tax worth it. He may be making the perfect enemy of the good.

Was there ever ANY credible alternative to pouring in billions to recapitalise, and thereby save, the banking system

partlucid

Ah, hindsight. Gordon Brown could have guaranteed all savings in the banks, then let the weakest collapse. But that would have been a trillion-pound gamble. What he should certainly have done is take full ownership and control of the banks and forced them to direct lending to sound businesses and strategic industries. What we have instead is a massive stake in high-street banking, but very little say. Hardly a bargain.

Foreign policy

Which party is committed to military withdrawal from Afghanistan and has drawn up a detailed, costed plan? Does this plan include a commitment to: a) work with any local partners necessary in order to leave a stable political settlement, and b) pressure the US to do the same?

Stiller 1980

None of the three main parties is committed to a military withdrawal from Afghanistan, though all say they will leave once the "job is done", whatever that means. None has gone as far as President Barack Obama in setting a de facto timetable for a withdrawal in mid-2011. Presumably, though, Britain will follow. If any of the main parties has a detailed, costed exit plan, they have not published it (just as they did not have a detailed, costed plan for Britain's increased involvement when it began under the then defence secretary John Reid). The BNP supports immediate withdrawal.

What are the parties' policies likely to be towards Zimbabwe and other developing countries who need aid, but who this government is currently at loggerheads with?

subversivefreak

The three main parties have condemned what they see as the misrule of President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe. The current policy of channelling British aid through non-government organisations, charities and UN agencies, rather than through the Mugabe regime's ministries, is likely to continue, whoever wins the election, and as long as power sharing with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change remains largely a fiction. There is broad agreement that any British assistance to other "countries of concern", such as Sudan, should normally be channelled via NGOs.

Have any of the potential leaders a clue what they would do about Israel/Palestine?

Tagalong

They all agree on the preferred outcome, an Israeli and Palestinian state living side by side, but they are vague on how to get there. Arguably, the onus on them is not all that great as Britain on its own has limited influence in the region. The Lib Dem manifesto points out that Britain has a stronger voice on the issue when it works within the EU. Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems have been the most outspoken in their outrage over Gaza.

I would like to know the interest each [party has] in clearing up the mess of the last 13 years re: foreign policy, civil liberties, human rights violations, etc, starting with Guantánamo.

MorallyUnambiguous

All the parties say they will clear up the mess, including Labour, whose mess it has been. All are in favour of staying in Afghanistan, though again all three say they would do it better. Guantánamo is declining as an issue, as the US internment camp steadily empties and no one now admits to thinking it was a good idea in the first place. The Lib Dems have been the most outspoken about the damage done to the UK's reputation, and point out they were the only one of the three main parties to oppose the Iraq invasion, declaring it illegal.

Home affairs

What plans, if any, have each of the three parties about dealing with worrying numbers of police officers acting outside the law and being immune to the law?

Mutspeak

None of the parties addresses the question directly. Lib Dems say they will restore the right to protest by reforming the Public Order Act and curb aggressive police tactics. Labour set up the IPCC, but their manifesto contains no further plans. Conservatives say only that it is vital that policing tactics have the support of the public.

Are there any pro-immigration parties?

NotUnreasonable

All main parties say they are pro-immigration, but the Conservative policy is to reduce the numbers to "tens of thousands" a year through an annual quota. Labour policy is to limit non-EU immigration to only those with the skills needed in Britain. The Lib Dems say they will introduce a regional points-based system to ensure migrants go to areas of greatest need.

What does each party promise to do about making sure that getting a conviction for rape is easier? What are they going to do to ensure rape victims are safe and protected?

brusketta

The Lib Dems have promised 15 more rape crisis centres and more money for centres that provide medical care and counselling for sexual assault victims. Labour has promised to set up these sexual assault referral centres in every area by 2011. The Conservatives say they match the Lib Dem pledge to deliver 15 more rape crisis centres, but will also ensure existing rape crisis centres have stable, long-term funding.

Other policy

Do any of the parties have credible policies to improve access to social housing for those in housing need?

jforbes

Labour are ahead on this one. Yes, they have had a mostly terrible record in government of relying far too much on private developers to provide housing; but in the last year or so they have ramped up investment in affordable homes and now plan to reform the system by which councils fund the building of houses. The Lib Dems talk a similar language. The Tories are hopeless.

Which parties are actually opposing the Digital Economy Act as their party line?

Topperfalkon

None of the three main parties opposes the act in its entirety. Labour pushed the legislation through as it stands in the final days before parliament was dissolved for the election in early April. The Tories are backing it, but have said they may overhaul internet piracy measures if the legislation turns out in practise to be "flawed" or have major "unintended consequences". The Lib Dems voted against the act becoming law, while backing most of the contents, because the party believes that parts of the anti-piracy legislation have not been given time to be worked through in a "fair and proportionate way". If elected, the Lib Dems would undertake a year of further research and consultation on this issue before taking action.

Will the British public have to fork out for a Sky subscription to watch England in the World Cup if the Conservatives win?

DisobeyMurdoch

No. The BBC and ITV have the rights to the 2010 and 2014 football World Cup finals. The World Cup finals are on the list of sporting events reserved for free-to-air TV. A Conservative spokeswoman told the Guardian yesterday there was "not a chance" that the party would take the World Cup finals off this list and allow other broadcasters – including Sky – to bid for them.

Will teachers ever be allowed to just teach?

webbysteve

All three main parties have promised to give teachers more freedom, but the profession doubts that any will really allow them to do what they do best – teach. The Lib Dems have pledged only one education act in five years of parliament and talk of reducing central control on schools. The Conservatives talk of extra freedoms for some schools and a slimmed down curriculum. Labour has a record of highly prescriptive controls over teachers, which some say has turned those in the profession into bureaucrats. Teachers say abolishing Sats tests for 10 and 11-year-olds would be a good start in allowing them to "just teach", but none of the three parties will agree to this.

Do any of the parties have any policies that deal specifically with the challenges facing single occupancy households?

SE26lad

Bad news: none of them mention it in their manifestos. In fact Nick Clegg even suggested in the last leaders' debate that single bedroom yuppie flats should be turned into ones for families. And the Tories want everyone to get married. Time to join that famous political standby, I'm afraid: the "hardworking family".

The voting system

If I vote for, say, the Lib Dems and it becomes a hung parliament, what happens? Do I really end up with a Labour or Conservative government and either Gordon Brown or David Cameron running the country?

wmissenden

Yup. Sorry. But that's the way things are. Vote Lib Dem and you might – if you live in one of about 80 places in Britain – get a Lib Dem MP. But if more people vote for Labour or the Conservatives, you won't get a Lib Dem government.

Why is the established media, including the Guardian, not explaining to people how the first-past-the-post system works massively in favour of the Liberal Democrats once they get past 38% of the popular vote? At 41-42%, they have a majority and are on their way to a landslide.

beauchampkid

The Lib Dems suffer as their vote is relatively evenly spread, so they do respectably in many places but rarely well enough to win. With enough extra votes, however, there would indeed come a point when they would creep over winning lines in all sorts of seats. The magic number is close to 40%, and if they hit the 43% Blair achieved in 1997 they would win a majority even more crushing than his. In terms of why we've not covered it much, I guess the only answer is that few of us expect it to happen.

Why did we end up with first-past-the-post in the first place?

justinpickard

The House of Commons was designed to represent distinct communities, not individual commoners. With no formal parties, individual candidates fought it out in individual constituencies and it seemed fair enough for the man with the most votes to win. Rotten boroughs and two-member constituencies have since been abolished, but the basic rules remain in force for no better reason than that they have never been changed. In 1917 and 1931 the Commons twice voted for variants of electoral reform, but the House of Lords and events intervened, and the proposals fell.

The current electoral system is clearly outdated and bordering on undemocratic. Those arguing for reform seem to be proposing proportional representation, which in effect means a permanently hung parliament. Is there another way to reform the system?

Evsie

We could form a society of Greek city states and try participatory democracy. But Greece is currently out of fashion. Or we could elect a president, except then everyone who didn't back the winner gets to lose. Or we could go some half-way to reform and use the alternative vote: Australia does that and governments get a majority.

Are any of the main three planning to address the issue of a second elected house to replace the House of Lords? And are any of the main three planning to have a referendum on the monarchy?

Cusacker

Sorry, the Queen seems safe. The Tories and Lib Dems don't mention her in their manifestos. Labour just says: "Our constitutional monarchy is the source of deep pride and strength for our country." Labour promises a majority elected Lords after two more general elections; the Lib Dems want one sooner; the Tories don't say when.

Media and polling

Why do so many of the media outlets, the Guardian included, persist in the mistaken reference to the opinion polls having a margin of error, typically plus or minus 3%? These polls are carried out using quota sampling. As such, they do not have a margin of error.

BigEd

You are right. To statisticians, margin of error can only apply to pure probability theory. And polls don't work on pure probability. The term has become shorthand in the British and US polling industry as a way of explaining that there is a chance the results are slightly wrong. This matters when all parties are close and the order and share affects how they are seen at an election. The Guardian has only used the phrase five times in the last two years. We'll stop, I promise.

Why do you consistently, on the daily liveblog and elsewhere, include without caveats predictions of 'seats won' based on a uniform national swing, a crude system which is untested in conditions such as those predicted by current polls?

jamesch

Because so far there isn't a better and tested theory for translating vote shares into seats. We always do put caveats in reports of our ICM polls – and most of the time give a range of outcomes, not an exact figure on uniform swing. But you're right: the model is broken. Got a better one?

In an election where voters choose a member of parliament for their constituency rather than a leader for the country, isn't it nonsensical to have televised debates between three candidates who are standing in three different constituencies and whose names, even collectively, will be printed on less than 1% of all ballot papers?

Cymrodor

Ah, a parliamentary romantic. Burke would have loved you. It's not nonsensical at all: the party leaders are competing for the job of prime minister, not local MP. And most people vote for the party they like, not the candidate. But you are perfectly free to do otherwise.


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Roy Greenslade: The Sun recruits Simon Cowell to its pro-Tory campaign

At last, The Sun calls in the nation's real leader to assist in its campaign on behalf of the Conservatives. "I have always hated celebrities lecturing people on politics," says Simon Cowell. But what the hell? I'm going to do it anyway.

His message, strangely, echoes that of the paper. A hung parliament would be bad for Britain. Gordon Brown is past it. Nick Clegg has worrying policies. David Cameron, wouldn't you just know it, "has substance and the stomach to navigate us through difficult times."

Cowell has met "David" twice and trusts him on "gut instinct" because "he was very quick to commit to helping with a serious funding deficit for a children's hospice charity I am involved with."

It appears that Cowell is more of an expert on politics than his modesty suggests. A hung parliament, he writes, "ends in months of stupid arguments and then a dull compromise, which means nothing ever gets achieved."

He does not reveal how he came by this insight. So what? It must be worth a splash if Cowell is saying it.

And if that doesn't get Sun readers worked up, then the Page 3 picture of 16 topless models will surely do the job. They will be on the dole, says the paper, if the Tories do not get elected.

Why? Because Labour's Harriet Harman and the Lib Dems' Lynn Featherstone want to change the law to "ban Page 3 forever."

To underline this assault on our liberties, The Sun introduces its readers to "the radical ideas of 17th century philosopher John Locke" who, it says, "helped shape our freedoms."

So that's it. The election is decided. Cowell plus Locke plus 16 Page 3 girls equals certain victory for Dave.


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Video: Gordon Brown in Manchester

Labour leader delivers powerful testimony to party's achievements and appeals for undecided voters to 'come home to Labour'



Digested election: Ganging up on Gordon

John Crace finds David Cameron grateful to Tony Blair and Manish Sood and Ed Balls and ...

Tony Blair Have you seen the papers? They say Gordon has found his voice.

Cherie Well you'd better stop that.

Blair Gosh. (Picks up phone.) Hello there, Manish ...

Manish Sood, Labour candidate for Norfolk North-West Gordon Brown is a total disaster. The worst prime minister this country ever had.

Peter Mandelson Who the hell chose him to be a Labour candidate?

Brown It was you, you fool.

Ed Balls I'd better tell everyone to vote Lib Dem.

David Cameron I'd just like to say thank you for that little intervention, Tony.

Blair I've always given Gordon my full backing.

Cameron The peerage will be in the post anyway.

George Osborne So what do we do now, sir?

Cameron I'm going to roll up my sleeves again, because they keep falling down. And then I'll stay up all night on Wednesday.

Osborne and Boris Johnson Top hole! It will be just like that night at the Bullingdon when we were off our faces with the topless Polish waitress and set off the fire alarm!

Clegg Alarm bells are going off all over the place right now.


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Cameron may ignore guidelines and claim victory

Tory leader signals if he fails to win he may challenge convention that serving PM gets first chance to form government

David Cameron is reported to be poised to claim victory even if he fails to win an overall majority on Thursday.

In doing so he will challenge the constitutional convention that says if Britain votes for a hung parliament, the existing prime minister gets the first chance to form a government. "There is a convention and there is practice and they are not always quite the same thing," said Cameron.

The cabinet secretary, Gus O'Donnell, has set out guidelines to allow for a week of possible negotiations about a coalition, to ensure the Queen is not drawn into political controversy and avoid turbulence in the markets. But senior Conservatives have made clear that Cameron was not consulted on these guidelines and will ignore them if he fails to win an outright majority. Instead he intends to lead a minority government.

The Hansard Society, the independent parliamentary authority, say what happens on Friday will depend on a combination of the electoral arithmetic, the constitutional conventions, the pressures of the media cycle and the blogosphere, the reaction of the markets and the direction of public opinion.

By Friday morning it should be clear whether any one party has an outright Commons majority by winning more than 325 seats.

Assuming that no party has a majority and the Liberal Democrats finish with the third largest number of seats, what are the most likely scenarios?

1 Gordon Brown hangs on and tries to do a deal with the Lib Dems.

The Hansard Society say the incumbent "caretaker" prime minister has first call on forming an administration: "Only if the incumbent prime minister fails to put together a deal with one or more of the other parties, or, after having chosen to 'meet' parliament, he loses a confidence motion, will the leader of the opposition party be invited to form a government." He does not have to go until it is obvious that he does not command the confidence of parliament, which means his legislative programme is defeated in the vote on the Queen's speech on 25 May or he loses a subsequent vote of no confidence.

Constitutional experts say it is possible for Brown to hang on even if Labour has failed to win the most seats, but it is likely that his lack of moral authority, media pressure and public opinion would make this difficult.

In the meantime if the election arithmetic means that Labour and the Lib Dems together have a majority of votes and more than 325 MPs, Brown may try to secure a deal with Nick Clegg – who would be expected to demand Brown's resignation and full electoral reform. The O'Donnell guidelines provide for these negotiations to take a week to 10 days.

Brown might refuse to quit, insisting that the result is a Tory defeat. Depending on the arithmetic he may try to carry on as a minority government but would probably have to resign at the first major parliamentary defeat.

2 The Miliband/Johnson option

As above but Brown does agree to resign, being replaced under a little-known Labour party rule by either a caretaker, such as Alan Johnson, or a new leader such as David Miliband. The deal does not have to be a full coalition but could range from Lib Dems in the cabinet to an agreement not to vote down the minority government in exchange for policy pledges. However a PM who has not taken part in the leaders' debates would seem to lack a moral mandate.

3 David Cameron declares victory anyway.

He hasn't got a majority but wins the largest number of votes and even possibly the largest number of seats. With strong media support he insists that Brown resigns immediately and he goes to Downing Street as head of a minority government without bothering to try to strike a deal with the Lib Dems or any other minority parties.

Senior Conservatives have argued that the O'Donnell guidelines were drawn up without consulting Cameron so he doesn't feel bound by them. This option depends on the momentum of media pressure and public opinion to force Brown to quit. If Brown refused to go and insisted on staying on until the 25 May vote, the Queen could not be called upon to intervene.

The Hansard Society says the monarch does not possess any reserve discretionary powers to act as a broker between party leaders in difficult situations: "It is essential for the future of the monarchy that its detachment from the political process is maintained."

In 1974, Labour supporters protested at Heath's attempt to hang on when he had not won the largest number of seats but Harold Wilson bided his time before forming a minority government.

4 Second general election

If the three parties cannot agree then it raises the prospect of an early election. But the party leaders will be conscious that the public and the market are unlikely to forgive them for putting them through the whole thing again. Instead Brown may play a longer game and gamble that a Tory minority administration making unpopular spending cuts during a double-dip recession will rapidly lose support, raising the prospect of fighting an autumn election with his record for economic competence intact.


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General election 2010 live blog

Andrew Sparrow covers the latest general election news and events, including Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg on the campaign trail.

10.52am: Caroline Lucas, the Green party leader, has also been sounding off about the leaders' debates. She told BBC News:

What they have done is turn a two-party stitch-up into a three-party stitch-up and they have still silenced lots of voices that I believe the British public would have wanted to hear. When you had the debates talking about foreign policy, not one of those three parties was talking about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which is Green party policy, not one of them was talking about international development, poverty eradication, getting rid of our nuclear weapons. A whole range of different options aren't on the table for as long as you exclude the smaller parties.

10.46am: This is excellent. We asked readers to submit some election questions - not the standard Q&A ones, but quirky, clever ones, like why is the election so male, and how did Britain end up with first-past-the-post in the first place - and Guardian writers have been answering them. I'm going to quote one, just to give you a flavour of what the answers are like, but the whole thing is worth reading.

Why do so many of the media outlets, the Guardian included, persist in the mistaken reference to the opinion polls having a margin of error, typically plus or minus 3%? These polls are carried out using quota sampling. As such, they do not have a margin of error. BigEd

You are right. To statisticians, margin of error can only apply to pure probability theory. And polls don't work on pure probability. The term has become shorthand in the British and US polling industry as a way of explaining that there is a chance the results are slightly wrong. This matters when all parties are close and the order and share affects how they are seen at an election. The Guardian has only used the phrase five times in the last two years. We'll stop, I promise.

10.35am: The phone-in is now over. Nicky Campbell concluded by asking Gordon Brown what he would do if he lost on Thursday. Brown would not speculate about that and said that he was fighting for the values he believed in.

I've got very strong views. I'm impatient to do things. I want to have a chance to build a better Britain for the future.

10.29am: A man called Alan rang in to say that he was dying of lung cancer and that the Department for Work and Pensions was forcing him to look for work. Gordon Brown said that that should not be happening. He said that he would take Alan's details and get the situation changed.

10.26am: Nicky Campbell asked Gordon Brown about Cowell's article in the Sun (see 9.35). Campbell said that Cowell likes Brown but thinks he's tired. Brown said he's not tired: "I'm energised."

He went on:

This is not an election to be decided by celebrities or by insiders or by journalists or by media people. It's the people's election. That's why I respect the fact that at the last minute there are many people ... who say quite rightly that they are undecided. And the reason they are undecided is that this is a big decision.

So why was Brown using Ross Kemp on the campaign trail yesterday, Campbell asked.

Brown said that Kemp had been helping the Labour party for years. But Kemp would accept that celebrities should not decide the election, Brown said.

10.13am: While the Brown phone-in carries on, here's a statement from the Green party leader, Caroline Lucas. She is attacking Nick Clegg for a comment he made in the Financial Times yesterday about electoral reform not being a precondition for coalition talks with the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats have made a huge noise about being the party of change but when it comes down to it all they really are is the party of changing their minds. It's common knowledge that the Tories don't want electoral reform. Any coalition negotitations that don't set out electoral reform as a deal breaker will lead to five more years of the same old system and it's the voters who will suffer.

The FT suggested that Clegg had changed his tack because last week he said the electoral reform was "an absolute precondition for renewal in this country". But yesterday, in response to the FT story, Clegg insisted that he was not being inconsistent. He said that he still believed electoral reform was a precondition for renewal, but that he had never spelt out any conditions for the talks that might take place between the Tories and the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament.

The Green party press release also says that two polling firms, YouGov and ICM, are predicting that Lucas will win in Brighton Pavilion.

10.05am: Nicky Campbell challenged Brown to defend his handling of the banks. How many Canadian banks needed to be bailed out, he asked. Campbell answered the question himself: none. Brown said Canadian banks were not international.

10.00am: A caller has just tried to get Gordon Brown to endorse tactical voting. He said that he was a Labour supporter, but that he lived in Cheltenham, where Labour does not have a chance. The Lib Dems hold the seat with 39.4% of the vote (in 2005), the Tories are just behind with 38.7% of the vote and Labour is trailing on 11.8%. The caller asked if Brown wanted him to vote Labour or Lib Dem tomorrow.

Brown would not take the bait.

I would like everybody who's Labour to vote Labour.

But Brown also said there was "an anti-Conservative majority in this country". He said the Tories went into the election expecting a coronation but found they had less support than they expected. Nicky Campbell told Brown that he had a coronation when he replaced Tony Blair in 2007.

9.46am: Nicky Campbell reminds Gordon Brown that he is being filmed. And he tells listeners that David Cameron did not accept an invitation to appear on the programme.

Brown says an emergency budget from the Conservatives would put the recovery at risk. He says he thinks there should have been more policy debate during the campaign.

Campbell asks about Gillian Duffy. He says that Brown said he would take responsibility in his Citizens UK speech. But when the Duffy incident happened, Brown's instinct was to blame "Sue". Which is the real Brown, Campbell asks.

Brown says he took responsibility after the Duffy incident.

I have said I take responsibility. I have always said when I make a mistake that I have made a mistake.

9.37am: Gordon Brown is about to start a phone-in on Radio 5 Live.

9.35am: I've mentioned the main stories in the papers already (see 6.59am, 8.33am 8.51am). Here are some of the others worth noting.

In the Sun, Simon Cowell says that he believes David Cameron is "the prime minister Britain needs at this time".

And the Sun says Labour's Harriet Harman and the Lib Dems' Lynne Featherstone would ban Page 3 girls.

David Miliband tells the Daily Telegraph says that Labour is about to get "the most New Labour parliamentary party ever".

The Daily Mail joins the tactical voting craze. It's urging people to vote tactically against Labour and it lists 65 seats where Mail readers could keep Labour out by voting Tory, Lib Dem or Plaid Cymru.

The Times says Vincent Cable has donated £14,000 to the Liberal Democrats.

Sue Cameron in the Financial Times says training for new MPs will start on Monday.

9.15am: Is there anyone in British politics with a better turn of phrase than Alan Johnson? This is what he was saying about the Lib Dems earlier on the Today programme.

The Liberal Democrats are on a slow puncture and the air is coming of the tyre. Whether enough of it will come out by Thursday, I don't know.

Johnson said that people liked what they saw of Clegg three weeks ago but that since then he had become "a bit grating". Johnson went on: "He's been trying the same tricks in every television debate and it gets a bit wearing."

The home secretary also said that David Cameron was "arrogant" because he thought he was going to win and that Clegg was "arrogant" because he thought he would be able to pick the prime minister.

8.51am: If George Osborne becomes chancellor, he may have to have some difficult conversations with Treasury officials. The Treasury spends a huge amount of time preparing the budget "red book", the vast document that contains all the figures about tax, spending and the state of the economy. But Osborne has just described it as rubbish. "The red book is largely a work of fiction," he told the Financial Times in an interview today. He said it included over-optimistic growth forecasts and hidden pension and public finance initiative liabilities.

8.47am: I've just been a Press Association account of one of David Cameron's overnight stops. Cameron was asked if the visit was a stunt. He replied:

I'm here with the emergency services. They work all night, I'm perfectly happy to work all night. Call it what you want.

Cameron was also asked if staying up all night was the equivalent of last-minute exam revision. "Well it worked for my finals," he said. (He got a first.)

8.33am: The Times publishes an interview with Brown today. The prime minister seems to have been in a curious mood. In the interview, he accused the Times (which has endorsed the Conservatives) of being biased.

We have figures that stand up to scrutiny and I'm afraid that's just the way life is. Once The Times has made up its mind to go in a particular way, then I don't think the evidence is necessarily the substantiating factor.

It also sounds as if he pretended not to know who the children's secretary was.

Some of his colleagues at the top of the Labour party have been making noises about tactical voting: Lord Adonis and Peter Hain, for example, have made overtures to Liberal Democrat voters. Ed Balls, in particular, has voiced his sympathy for Labour supporters who might be tempted to vote Lib Dem where such a vote could keep a Tory out.

When this is put to Mr Brown, he says: "Ed who?"

8.24am: Is Michael Gove a banana? You must decide for yourself. The shadow children's secretary posed the question earlier today on the Today programme.

We know with proportional representation you cannot be certain that the party that gets the most votes, the party that is the most popular, forms a clear and decisive government. If people vote for the third party, for Nick Clegg, in this election, what they are doing is succumbing to a sort of blind date politics .... The voice is seductive, but when the curtain slips back, after having voted for Nick Clegg, you don't know who you are going to end up in bed with. You could have Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, or David Miliband as your prime minister. If that's democracy, I'm a banana.

Gove also claimed that the Tories would change the voting system to make "every vote count" and to make it "fairer". He was referring to the Tory plans to cut the size of the House of Commons. Gove said this would produce a fairer system because it would ensure every constituency was the same size. Under the current system, there is considerable variation.

8.07am: Alan Johnson, the home secretary, has just been on the Today programme. He said he thinks Labour can win.

I am absolutely convinced we can come through tomorrow with a majority.

He also paid lavish tribute to Gordon Brown. He described Brown as "the single biggest reason why this country did not go into the euro" and he said Brown "has done more to tackle poverty, both in this country and internationally, than any other leader I can think of".

David Cameron was on GMTV earlier. He explained why he had been campaigning through the night.

I never believed this election was going to be easy. I mean, elections are meant to be a challenge. The British people don't hand you the government of the country on a plate. Quite rightly, they are making us work for it.

Cameron hasn't gone without sleep entirely. According to the Press Assocation, he has been "grabbing some sleep in the back of the bus" between visits.

6.59am: David Cameron has been campaigning through the night. But has it impressed the voters? Like Cameron, my colleague Steven Morris never sleeps. He's been on the road early today and he heard a couple of truckers discussing Cameron's all-nighter at the Taunton Deane services on the M5. He's just sent me this:

"That Cameron was up all night, good effort," says the one.
"We do that every night," says trucker two.
"When is the general election anyway?"
Informed that it is tomorrow trucker two says he might vote if he gets up and will probably vote BNP.

In the papers today, tactical voting still dominates. In the Guardian Patrick Wintour says that Tony Blair has rejected the suggestion that Labour supporters should vote tactically against the Conservatives.

Speaking on a day when several cabinet ministers suggested that Labour voters should cast their ballot for the Liberal Democrats in some seats, the former prime minister set himself against the tactic, and was contemptuous of Nick Clegg's party and its claim to represent real change. He described the Lib Dems as "the old politics masquerading as the new", and said their entire history as a party showed them incapable of facing up to hard choices.

Voters, he said, should follow their instincts. "It is simple," he told the Guardian. "Vote for what you believe in. If you think their polices are good, vote for them, but if you don't, don't. The Lib Dems are not going out to people and saying 'vote Labour' – they are trying to take seats off us."

The Times carries an interview with Gordon Brown in which Brown says much the same thing.

The prime minister has rebuffed cabinet colleagues who suggested that Labour supporters could back Liberal Democrat candidates where such a vote would keep out a Conservative.

Instead, he told The Times that he wants people to vote Labour regardless of the state of play in their constituency. "I am asking people to vote Labour because I want to get the maximum Labour vote."

And the lead story in the Daily Telegraph says the Democratic Unionists are willing to enter a coalition with the Conservatives if Cameron does not win an outright majority.

Mr Cameron became the first of the main party leaders to visit Northern Ireland during the election campaign on Tuesday.

He indicated he wished to give Northern Ireland politicians ministerial positions — and see the province play a key role in the "mainstream politics" of the entire country.

There were two polls overnight. ComRes gave the Tories an eight-point lead over Labour, and YouGov gave the Tories a five-point lead. They both showed the Lib Dems clearly in third place. I'll post more details later, but you can read more now at UK Polling Report.

I'm leaving for Westminster now and I'll be posting again at some point after 7.30.


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