Monthly Archives: January 2007

Don’t call U.S., they’ll call you.

So I was on my way to Downing Street to see the prime minister at his behest. [If you’re lost at this point, wandering like child who has slipped the hand of their guardian at the fair ground then you may find it helps to read the first half of this post: Two phone or not two phone, but then again it may not.]

I exited Westminster tube and walked towards Downing Street. I was curious about the possible reason for the call it really was unlike Tony to call on the weekend. I got to the gate and showed my pass to the guard. I used to be allowed to go in without one but with all of the extra security these days the guards don’t know who anyone is anymore.
Henry on the door was still there though. I wondered, at first to myself and then out loud to him if he could possibly work twenty four hours a day seven days a week.

“I’m off when he’s off, ” he shrugged, “I work when he works.”
“Tough gig,” I said.
“It’s the way it’s always been. I get time off when he’s traveling.”

He waved me in and I was in the hall. I waited for Jennifer or somebody to pick me up. I doesn’t do to wander around. The hall was as busy as ever. People in and out of rooms and noises. I’d always found that it was busier in the night or the weekend in the hall. Because in the week day every one is in meetings.

Jennifer poked her head round the door.

“Hello Alex, good to see you.”
“Is he ready for me or should I wait?”
“No, no he’s ready for you now.”

I walked through behind her, through her ante room and stopped behind her while she knocked on the door and heralded me. Tony called, “Yes” and I went in.

“Good morning Mr Blair”.
“Good morning Alex, it’s really good to see you. Sorry to disturb your weekend.”
“Come in sit down.”

I quickly took in the room which was as immaculate as always. I have always wondered if this was always the case. People trust the advice I give them but they don’t always trust me. I deal with many people who would love to get hold of a look at the current papers on Tony Blair’s desk. I however am not one of them. But do they know that? I’m not always sure.

I chose my usual chair and Tony sat back down behind his desk.

“Do you fancy a drink?”
“No I’m fine,” I answered, “But please go ahead, you look like you need one.”
“Thanks,” he said, “you always seem to look calm. How do you do it?”
“Well I’m an advisor, I don’t actually have any responsibility.”
“But… You… You are THE advisor. Everyone listens to you. What you say actually happens. You can even get cross party support for things.”
“It’s not my fault if people do what I say. It’s theirs. And I can get everything done. I can’t change everything can I?”
“You’re going to chide me about Iraq again aren’t you.”
“No. Well… I was just using it to make a point.”

Tony finally stood up and walked over to his drinks cabinet.

“It always happens though doesn’t it. Whenever I think I know better. Whenever I ignore your advice. You are always proved right in the most spectacular ways.”
“Proved right?”
“Don’t read anything into that Alex. I know you want to. But take it from me I still know George and I did the right thing even though it wasn’t the popular thing. You just knew before anyone else that it wasn’t going to be popular.”
“Were you ready for the hanging?” I asked, because I never really liked to talk about how other people thought I worked.

Tony didn’t respond. He took the question as a pause and opened the drinks cabinet. He had to have known I was going to ask about it, so the fake deliberation and thinking face were somewhat lost on me.

“Are you going to have a drink or not?” he asked this as he poured what could only be described as a giant scotch for himself.
“Go on then. I’ll have a Scottish single malt if you have one.”
“You know I had considered buying some just for you. But still I couldn’t bring myself to ask someone to change the order.”
“I’ll have an Irish then – of course.”

In his kitchen in Shoreditch it had always been Scottish, and just after he arrived in Downing Street it all changed. It was the first thing that hinted to the rift. Of course the rift was patched up so many years ago now you would think that he’d go back to the Scottish. But whether it was that he had simply become accustomed to the taste, or if it was all part of his implementation of my strategy – to allow the British public to feel they could vote for Gordon because if Tony hated him and preferred David then it would make people think Gordon must be doing something right – I don’t know. Maybe he was just keeping up the pretence everywhere, just in case.

“So?” I looked up quizzically, as if you say, “you summoned me”, and he got the idea without me actually having to say it.
“It’s this damn investigation. They seem to just keep getting closer and closer.”
“The honours probe?”
“Yes. I mean, everyone knows what happened, everyone understands it. Why can’t we all move on from this.”
“The problem is Tony this is the Police. They work differently than everyone else. You’ve spent your whole political career on the most important thing a politician can ever do, on creating the right impression and now unfortunately you’ve come up against a brick wall. A wall which is looming over you if you can endure the unusual metaphor. In a straight fight between you and any other politician I’ve ever met, I’ve never found somebody as adapt at turning a loosing hand into a winner by pure bluff. It’s the most important skill a politician can have if they want to stay elected. But Iraq and this are different. There are laws here. There are deaths here. The only difference that the anti-war protestors are all dancing around is the fact that you can do what you like when it comes to war, you have ultimate power in this country for war. They can’t really win. But with this honours business, it’s much harsher. The law is simple and unavoidable. You can’t simply deflect it.”
“But every party has always done it. They’ve all done it despite the law, why are they coming after me?”
“Because Tony, people simply don’t like you.”
“But why? I had to make tough choices and I did them for the good of Britain”
“No you didn’t not all of them”
“What are you saying? I knew people, British people, would die in Iraq. But no war is without casualties. And if you’re saying I didn’t know it was going to be unpopular then you’re forgetful. Of course I knew. You sat right there and told me.”
“But you went and did it anyway.”
“That’s right. I had to, it was the right thing to do even if the people didn’t see it.”
“It was the first time that you really showed that you truly were still old Labour.”

I paused to take a sip of the whisky. He didn’t start speaking.

“That ‘mother knows best’ attitude seemed so ill fitting on you that day. You this man who had come from nowhere on a wave of popular opinion. You took the old nanny state mentality and decided on war. It wasn’t your style. Because you know, or at least you used to know, that the popular voice was the thing that got you where you were. That the popular voice was what rules the country. In every previous tough choice situation you had gone out to court the public, to convince them to come along for the ride. And every time it had worked. Why did you do it if when they still said no you you were going to do it anyway?”
“I’ve asked myself this. I really have. I thought I heard yes. I knew it was weak. But I thought it had just tipped towards us. And I thought that every day we were at war the support would grow. Look what happened to Margaret. No one thought she’d do it but it saved her career.”
“But you forgot something.”
“You forgot to tell people what winning looked like. Margaret had a result that everyone could agree on.”
“I know. I know that now.”

He stood up and walked with his empty glass back over to the drinks cabinet. He looked back at me and eyed my near full glass with what looked almost, for a second, contempt. He put his glass down and walked back to his seat.

“But that wasn’t what I was saying,” I said, “I was going to talk about allying your self with Bush. That wasn’t for Britain. That was for you. Clinton was your president. Not Bush.”

Well I was going to say more today, but now I’ll have to wait until some more comes out about Lord Levy. Check back next week for more.

Where do you go to weigh a whale?

A whale weigh station.

Two phone or not two phone

I have two telephones for a variety of reasons. So when the other one rang on Saturday I knew it was important. Only a certain kind of person has that number and they are all under strict instructions not to phone me on the weekend unless it’s really important.

Truth be known I had felt bad having to reiterate the no weekend calling rules but Gordon is such a workaholic he often has no idea what time of the day or night it actually is let alone which day of the week. Add to that that David and he have only been given my number recently and then you’ve got trouble.

Tony was never as bad as these two even at the beginning. They both are desperate to win. My favorite caller is George W. He’s asked me for my number something like fifteen times and every time he thinks he looses it. The problem is he can’t ever remember my name. So the last time I met up with him I took his phone from him and put my number in for him. I made a little joke and said that he’d be able to find me now.

The truth was that I’d put my number in under the entry God. And so now from time to time I get agonized calls from him in the middle of the night. I tried to get some policy shifted initially but frankly he doesn’t remember half of anything I say and he of course isn’t really calling the shots. He’s started wetting the bed again so I try to be some comfort to him. It doesn’t do to kick a man when he’s down.

So who has access to my number? Most of the political leaders obviously. And some of the more likely candidates of the future. The Pope obviously, Bill Gates and Bono (if he leaves another musical voicemail that’s it I’m changing my number). The big corporate heads of course. And a few of the political operators but they know they aren’t supposed to call except in dire circumstances. Rove called during the Libby scandal which was fair enough. But lets just say that Mendelssohn is in Europe for a reason and that reason is waking me up at two in the morning to ask my opinion on a speech. “If the prime minister isn’t dead then you are”, I said to him.

But who was it on Saturday? Well blinking on the display was the word “Tone”. While I never permit myself to be that familiar with my subjects I couldn’t help but allow myself the little run every time I needed to “Ring Tone”. Terrible I know but it’s these small things that keep me amused while dealing with the demands of there incredibly powerful and insecure people.

I spoke briefly to Tony and it was obvious that I needed to go in. Sadly I cannot reveal my conversation with Tony until Wednesday (some things must remain secret even from you my dear readers), so I’m afraid you’ll have to tune back in then if you want to know more.

Bad Design

I went to the design museum yesterday with Katherine to see the Alan Fletcher exhibition (no not the chap that plays Karl Kennedy on Neighbours he’s here)

Afterwards we bought his book and then tried to slip into the design museums bag a Marks and Spencer bag of liquid gravy and a bar of chocolate and look what happened:

Now that’s what I call bad design!


A heavy duty plant vehicle which you’ve borrowed


This is part three of a short story. To get the story so far see part one (Left out in the cold and part two (Outside).

He walked towards the door. He had to see, it could have just blown shut he thought. He walked forwards and pulled the door. He thought he felt it move for just a second but then nothing. It was secured.

He turned away and looked across what he remembered had once been a rose garden but now was just a completely plain white vista that stretched on as far as he could see. The buildings behind him were the only identifiable thing he could see.

He knew exactly where he was and yet he was lost. He wanted to shed a tear but he knew it would instantly freeze and would cause him more troubles than it caused. Instead he gulped down on the air, and regretted it instantly as the freezing vapour entered deep within his lungs.

He looked longingly towards the old school. It looked abandoned rather than thriving with all of the windows boarded up like that. If only there was a way for them to see him he thought.

And then it hit him. In the dining hall there was a giant glass window that was left. Years ago they had seen wildlife despite the snow. Polar bears and rabbits and so on but now even they had migrated further south. The temperatures being too cold even for them. Right now he couldn’t help wondering why hadn’t he.

A stupid thought though. It was still too cold for him to survive down there. It just would have taken longer to die. He had to concentrate. No time for stupid thoughts like that. If he could get to that window he could make it.

He stumbled forward. He hadn’t quite realised how far away the dining hall was from the door but he supposed it was all a question of diameter versus circomfrence. It was very different to be walking inside a shape than all the way around it. He kept his mind active by trying to do the retevent maths in his head.

After twenty minutes he was cold and tired and not nearly far enough around. He was finding it more and more difficult to put one foot in front of the other. Soon enough he stopped. And after a second he fell to the floor.

As he lay there he remembered a common room meeting twenty years ago. There was a big debate and then it was decided that the lock should be removed from the door. There was no point because there were no burglars. But they had worried that somebody might accidentally get locked out. In fact he had recently thought about adding a lock to stop the students from getting out but hadn’t for just this very reason. Such a fool why hadn’t he remembered this before. His left cheek was starting to get wet from the snow he was lying on. So why couldn’t he open the door? They must have been on the other side holding it closed.

What was it? Richeous indignation? Or just having been a teacher this long? Whatever it was the rage that bubbled up inside him, and more than that the desire to tell the students off awoke in him an energy he didn’t know he had.

He leapt off of the ground, dusted himself off and started almost running towards what he now knew was an unlocked door.

He shall from time to time

The president has made a State of the Union address last night.

The thing that is strange about the State of the Union is that the president doesn’t actually have to say anything. It’s all just tradition rather than law. The law says that the president shall from time to time tell congress what’s going on. It doesn’t say how often or when. But tradition states that it will happen once a year. And because it’s basically a copy of the Queen’s Speech it has the same kinds of trappings, for example the President has to be invited to attend and cannot demand an audience. Although I don’t think he’s wearing ermine undies.

There are some strange traditions associated with the evening though. Because of the fact that they have so many of the political elite in the room they have their own political version of the designated driver, they have the designated survivor in case of a disaster. The weird thing is that because the oldest serving member of the Senate (Robert Byrd) doesn’t attend anymore because he is sold old the whole thing is somewhat irrelevant. He can’t be bothered to turn up to the speech because it’s too much effort at his age, but this means because of the political system in America that if a catastrophe occurs he will become the president. A pretty odd state of affairs – even though he’d probably resign immediately.

Anyway all of this talk of designated survivors makes me think of the State of the Union drinking game, hope you all played.

Here’s from me looking forward to
Barack Obama
‘s first State of the Union, now that will be a sight to see.

Two fish are in a tank

and one turns to the other and says, “do you know how to drive this thing”.

Train in Vain

I was sitting in a café in Clapham Junction train station on the first Monday of a month and was noticing the incredibly long queue of people trying to buy their monthly rail tickets. It was completely dire, people must have been waiting over half an hour to get their ticket. And yet nobody was coming to help them. I got up from my seat and went up to the counter to get another coffee, and as I stood there I became the fifth person in the queue for the coffee. Seeing me arrive in the queue the guy serving the first person left his customer for just a second and went into the back room to fetch somebody to come out and help. They started working and suddenly there wasn’t a queue any more and the second guy went back to his break.

That’s what real businesses must do; they must serve their customers because if they don’t then the customers will simply go somewhere else. The closest other coffee shop to this one is one minute walk away. That’s competition. If I didn’t want to wait for my coffee it would have taken less time for me to walk to the other shop than it would to stand in the queue. And that’s what’s not happening in the British railway system and that’s why the system doesn’t work. Despite all of the claims and counter claims there is no real competition in the railway system.

So how can we fix it? It’s simply unmanageable to have lots of competing train services operating on a commuter line, because people will always take the first train anyway. So how can we create competition in the system?

We already have a situation where the lines are run by a non-profit making firm National Rail. This system seems to work well because it provides a way for the government to centrally finance the investment in the system. The biggest problem is that the government seems to be nervous of admitting that these firms need to make profits to return to shareholders. If there are no profits then there will be no companies in the system.

Now you may prefer this method, a nationalised railway system back as it was. But I can remember commuting under British Rail and it was terrible. Trains were delayed all the time and nothing ever seemed to get done. It was like now but worse.

If we leave the system like it is now though firms are basically sinning whenever they make profits. That’s how people see it. How can they make money when the train system has got worse?

Well I have a solution which I think deals with this.

Each firm that runs a train company must set up a non-profit subsidiary which runs the train system. All ticket revenue and government subsidies sit within this subsidiary and all monies go to reinvestment in the train network – not branding, senior management or shareholders. Branding, senior management and the shareholders would sit in the holding company which can be profit or loss making.

Each year in January the government would award or fine the rail company’s profit making division based on the previous year’s performance. This would work by having, for example, five simple categories like: punctuality, reliability, accessibility, customer numbers and customer satisfaction. The last one would be the result of a survey which would take place throughout the year so the companies couldn’t just get better for a bit of the year.

We would then tot up the totals for the whole network. And come up with one single score for the year. Has train transport improved or worsened over the last year? Based on this number we would be able to determine the size of the winnings pot. This too would be very simple we would have different amounts in the pot set for -5% worse, no change, +5% better, +20% etc. Maybe 10 bands with 10 figures. There should be an amount in the pot even if the whole network got worse by more than -20% for reasons that will become obvious in a second.

Then we rank all of the train networks from top to bottom. Any who got worse in the year have a fixed penalty amount. Say for example we set -100% which you could never reach as a fine of £100 million. If you got 15% worse in the year you’d have to pay £15 million fine. The fines would help finance the pot that we’ve set up, and if they exceed the amount set in the pot then the excess money would be secured to help pay for future years when the services might improve.

Any companies that did improve would get a share of the pot calculated in order of performance. So the best company gets the most and the worst (of those who improved) gets the least.*

This is why even if the network did really badly there must be some money in the pot because it would be wrong to not be able to reward the one firm that was working well. But by tying them to the other firms nationally we do have less of a situation of tax payers paying for services they can’t use.

This method seems incredibly simple to me. I’ve explained it here in six paragraphs. But it could be explained even more simply, it is a plan to make train companies compete against each other for profits.

That’s it! And you know I think it might work.

* The way I imagine doing this is slightly complicated to explain but here goes: Take 100% and divide by the number of winners. Say 5 for this example, so 20%. Initially assign this 20% to each company. Then select the top company and give it 4% extra because it beat 4 other companies, this 4% gets taken from the 4 companies they beat 1% each. So each is on 19% temporarily. The second company now gets 3% extra because that’s how many it beat taking it to 22% and the 3% comes from the 3 companies below it (leaving them on 18% temporarily) and so on. This would end up with a distribution of 24%, 22%, 20%, 18% and 16%.