“All the witches were in stitches…”

October 31, 2008 at 12:26 am (cinema, jazz, Jim D, music)

Louis on Halowe’en:

The film was ‘Pennies From Heaven’ (1936) and the drummer was Lionel Hampton, the pianist Joe Sullivan.

I previously posted a Youtube clip, but they  (whomsoever “they” may be when you’re talking Youtube)  have blocked access to this for some unknown reason, so to see Louis and the skeleton in action, try this: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2008/06/skeleton-in-closet.html

(JD added on 26/10/2011): I think we may have that clip back again (albeit a rather jittery version – but the sound’s OK) :

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Gwoss Misconduct

October 30, 2008 at 11:10 pm (comedy, Free Speech, Jim D, media, trivia, TV, wankers)

I would very much like to be able to tell you that this blog’s failure to comment on the Ross/Brand/ Sachs “incident” has been the result of a high-minded refusal to demean ourselves by following the tabloid pack, etc, etc.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. We have all been too busy with other matters to get round to it. And we don’t have a “line” on the matter, either, so what follows is entirely down to yours truly:

1/ If you or I, or some obscure local radio presenter had done anything approaching what Woss and Brand did, it would have been treated as gross misconduct and our feet wouldn’t have touched the ground.

2/ Taking the piss out of the rich, powerful and influential can be funny. Mocking inoffensive, not particularly wealthy, elderly people – even when they’re slightly famous actors – isn’t. The great Charlie Brooker put it rather well in an article written just before the Woss/Brand story broke: “Because we’re all just jerks in the playpen, when it comes down to it. And tossing insults and brickbats is all part of the fun, especially if its done with panache. But when anyone – no matter how annoying – stumbles and shatters their skull, you’d better shut up or help them. Why? because you’re also a grown up, stupid. And that’s what they do.”

3/ How is it that while Brand has resigned from Radio 2 (though that represents a very small sacrifice in his “portfolio” of lucractive interests), and an innocent BBC apparatchik has now followed suit, the £6 million-a-year gobshite Woss gets off with 12 weeks without pay and a public assurance from the director general that he won’t be sacked?

4/ Have you noticed the omerta of the new luvvies – the British comedy clique? Not one of these “cutting edge” clowns has broken ranks to call call Woss and Brand the assholes that they are. Others from the comedy establishment (like the Blairite groveller John O’ Farrell and his pathetic NewsBiscuit website) and some “liberal” commentators (like him and him) have suggested that it’s all a storm in a teacup got up by the tabloids, and also a threat to freedom of expression (not that these same liberal commentators seemed particularly concerned about real threats to freedom of expression).

5/ Finally, I just hope that this whole sordid business doesn’t signal the end of that wonderful comic tradition, the hoax phone call, which in the right hands (ie not those of Woss or Brand) can be a delight to be savoured…


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Cockburn Gets it all Wrong on Obama

October 28, 2008 at 10:37 pm (Democratic Party, elections, libertarianism, McCain, Obama, politics, Republican Party, unions, United States, voltairespriest)

Barack ObamaI notice that I’ve already been somewhat beaten to the punch on this one by Harry’s Place, however I thought I’d add a few thoughts of my own for the sake of the debate. In the last Independent on Sunday, Alexander Cockburn, he of Counterpunch, The Nation and The First Post fame/notoriety, has an article about Barack Obama. Or rather, his is the latest in a string of articles across various publications from “celebrity” left wing journalists about why you shouldn’t support Obama in the US Presidential Election next Tuesday. This is an argument that has been had in the UK, with most of the trotskyite groups opposing Obama for various reasons (some good, some bad), and most of the social democratic/reformist left offering him one or another degree of support, with some exceptions.

Entitled “Obama, the First Rate Republican”, Cockburn’s article claims to be examining Obama on his own terms, namely that a vote for him is not merely a “stop McCain & Palin” gesture, but rather a positive vote for a political change of direction. Cockburn disputes this heavily, and he does make some worthwhile points, particularly concerning Obama’s muscular utterances around foreign policy in Pakistan and elsewhere. This looks very much like a continuance of the Bush administration’s aggressive stances towards various other nations in recent years. However, even here Cockburn chooses to ignore the fact that many of these utterances have been about hypothetical situations, such as what would happen if a government were found to have been aiding and abetting Al-Qaeda, or similar situations. Furthermore he ignores the sapping away of public will to support another war of aggression, not to mention the vitriolic hositility to such a venture that a future President Obama would encounter from within his own political party.

Cockburn then goes on to point out Obama’s wobbliness in terms of his at least partially having supported the Bush administration’s legislative moves to restrict civil liberties at home (for instance he voted in favour of warrantless wiretapping in spite of having said on a previous occasion that he opposed it). However he goes into no great detail about anything else, merely saying that Obama’s “relatively decent” stances on immigration and labour-law reform are merely there because he “has not had occasion to adjust” them as yet. He ignores the areas of health care, social security and education (on all of which the gulf between Obama and McCain is very noticeable) altogether.

But let us take one of Cockburn’s own points as our example. When he scoffs about Obama’s “relatively decent” stance on labour-law reform, what he is actually referring to is the candidate’s (and the Democratic Party’s) support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which as Eric Lee has pointed out is one of the most crucial pieces of labour rights legislation in recent US history. Certainly in terms of the private sector it could quite literally mean the difference between the rebirth of organised labour in the USA and its death, in as much as (if passed) it would bar employers from victimising workers merely for joining a union. Such protection is largely already contained within statute law in the UK, but in the US this simple reform is considered so controversial that the Democrats will have great difficulty passing it if they do not achieve their optimum target (possible) of a filibuster-proof 60 seat majority in the Senate. “Obama, McCain, Just The Same”? I don’t think so. Every major trade union in the USA supports Obama and is working for a Democratic majority in Congress, and certainly this time it isn’t just because they have nothing better to do.

On another level, Cockburn offers no thoughts about the movement of social forces underlying the election, relative to which individual policies are almost incidental. Obama’s election would, more than almost any other Democratic candidate, represent the long-overdue crushing of the barely-disguised racist “Southern Strategy” pursued by the GOP since the time of Richard Nixon. In doing so it would also represent the effective end of the Christian Right as a driving force in US governmental politics. Further, in strengthening the labour movement and doubtless emboldening other progressive forces, it would almost certainly open up political space to the left of the current Democratic Party in a way that could not feasibly happen here and now under a Republican presidency. A McCain victory on the other hand would put a Goldwater-esque figure in the White House, and one who would be beholden to the reactionary theo-politicians on the right of the GOP. Again, it is hard not to see positive reasons for backing Obama here.

Yet I think the really shocking point comes in Cockburn’s final paragraph, where he says (my emphasis):

If you want a memento of what could be exciting, go to the website of the Nader-Gonzalez campaign and read its platform on popular participation and initiative. Or read the portions of Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr’s platform on foreign policy and constitutional rights.

We will ignore Cockburn’s direction of people towards Nader, in my opinion a “little guy populist” candidate who is not actually a left-winger, and his VP candidate Matt Gonzalez, a genuine progressive who will be of little consequence due to his second-on-the-ticket position and lack of popular profile. And we will note that at least he has had the decency not to mention Green candidate and ex-Democratic congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who probably wins the prize for being the weirdest national candidate to stand on a “progressive” ticket in recent elections. Instead, let us look at “Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr”.

Prior to his (very) recent defection, Libertarian nominee Bob Barr was a Republican congressman from Georgia. He would have stood no chance of making the GOP national platform in any country-wide election, not just because of his lack of personal charisma but because his politics were so conservative as to be a vote loser in vast swathes of the country. A cultural conservative and drug warrior, his acceptance of the Libertarian Party’s platform on anything other than economic issues looks decidedly suspect. In the August/September issue of libertarian magazine Reason, David Wiegel recounts this year’s Libertarian Party convention. Barr was elected as the party’s candidate, on the sixth ballot, in the teeth of opposition from the “radical” wing, whilst leaflets circulated suggesting that the Libertarian Party should be renamed the “New Republican Party”. So quite what could possibly be so “inspiring” about this candidate who stands well to the right of McCain, I certainly have no idea.

All of this leads me to question where exactly Cockburn was going with the article. He exhibits no actual understanding of Obama’s platform, no understanding of the underlying social politics behind the election, nor indeed much comprehension of what the alternatives are. Having read his article I remain convinced that the best result for progressive politics next week would be an emphatic Obama victory and a large Democratic majority in Congress, and not just for progressives in the USA either. As for Cockburn, I just wonder whether he really knows what he’s talking about.

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Nesrine Malik’s cavalcade of stupidity

October 26, 2008 at 3:47 pm (Feminism, Guardian, Human rights, Islam, Max Dunbar, Middle East, reaction, religion, secularism)

Ophelia Benson has already dealt with this in fine style, but the article she criticises is so relentless in its stupidity that I just cannot help from joining in.

It’s by Nesrine Malik – who we met back in May. This week she’s letting us know that being murdered for apostasy is really no big deal:

Reading AC Grayling’s latest article and listening to the protestations of the Council of Ex-Muslims, you would think that the death penalty is being gratuitously and frequently applied to those who renounce Islam or harbour thoughts of apostasy.

It takes a second for the full force of Malik’s idiocy to sink in here. Most people on the Guardian are against the death penalty even for crimes such as murder or child abuse. But Malik appears to believe in an acceptable level of incidences where the death penalty can be used; not for committing violent crimes, but for leaving your religion.

So… if you listen to the militant atheists, you’d think that people were being killed for apostasy all over the place, right? Whereas, in reality, people are being killed, but not ‘gratituously or frequently’. So that’s all right then.

I have several friends and family members who are non-believers and apart from some efforts to return them to the straight and narrow or at least go through the motions of religious observance, they have not come into any physical danger.

As Ophelia says, this is nice but tells us jack shit. Richard Littlejohn could make the following argument: ‘I don’t know anyone who has been a victim of racism – therefore racism does not exist.’ It’s never worked for him and it doesn’t work for Malik now.

And what does ‘efforts to return them to the straight and narrow’ entail, exactly?

Oh but hang on – Muslim scholars have ‘differences of opinion’ regarding the death penalty:

Although the Council of Ex-Muslims and AC Grayling depict the threat to life and limb as an indisputable fact, in reality there are differences of opinion among Muslim scholars (ostensibly the hard core of the religion) regarding the death penalty for apostates.

Well this, too, is nice, and I’m sure is a great comfort to those people threatened with death for what amounts to a change of heart.

And anyway, even if people are killed for leaving their religion, this is not for religious reasons:

This is not to say that Muslim governments – and Arab ones in particular – have a tolerant view of apostasy but the death threat is invoked only rarely and more for political reasons rather than religion ones: to set an example or to save face as a proxy punishment for challenging the social or political status quo.

Nothing to do with us, mate: the killers have ‘misinterpreted’ or ‘perverted’ the peaceful holy scripture.

Then Malik’s silliness causes her to shoot herself in the foot:

Nawal el Sadaawi, a prominent Egyptian writer and social activist, has clashed several times with religious authorities and has even dismissed some of the rituals of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) as pagan, but I do not believe she lives in any fear for her life.

Now, Dr Nawal el Sadaawi is an Egyptian feminist and campaigner against genital mutiliation. She’s been dismissed from jobs, received death threats and even been imprisoned for her writings. From an interview with el Sadaawi in 1999:


After you taught at Duke University you went back to Egypt. Are you again in exile now?

el Sadaawi

No, I am in Egypt now. I live in Egypt. Even when I was at Duke I did not consider myself in exile. I hated the word. The media said that. I said, well, I am in danger for my life in Egypt, and I have to leave, because I have to protect my life. And Duke offered me a post, so I came, you know.

She goes on to say this:

In my country if a girl loses her virginity, it’s a scandal. If she’s pregnant outside marriage, outside wedlock, it’s a scandal. Her name may be put on the death list, as happened with me, if she attacks, or is critical of religion or mainstream beliefs.

Emphasis is, naturally, mine.

The charitable interpretation is that Malik simply isn’t familiar with el Sadaawi and doesn’t realise that she does, contrary to Malik, have reason to fear for her life. And Malik does say that ‘It is easy to appear churlish or insensitive when disputing the assertions of people who claim their lives are in danger’. But – and there is always a but:

[W]e must also consider the possibility that some will annex the emotive power of ‘death for apostasy’ to serve their own ends, be they personal or political. Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-born ex-Muslim who has lived in the US for almost 20 years, became a hero of the neocons after claiming that some casually dismissive words from a cleric in a TV debate amounted to ‘a fatwa’. In due course, Time Magazine listed her as one of 100 influential people ‘whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world’.

Note the Uncle Tom subtext here: ‘a hero of the neocons… ex-Muslim who has lived in the US for twenty years.’

Like el-Sadaawi, Wafa Sultan is an ex-Muslim and critic of religion who received death threats after her appearance on a televised debate with a conservative cleric:

One message said: ‘Oh, you are still alive? Wait and see.’ She received an e-mail message the other day, in Arabic, that said, ‘If someone were to kill you, it would be me.’

Presumably – though she doesn’t have the guts to say so – Malik thinks that either Sultan is lying about the death threats, or deliberately provoked them just so that she could be on the cover of Time.

Sultan’s words prompted this satirical post from the blogger ‘Eerie’ on ‘How to be a Muslim reformer,’ a sardonic step-by-step guide with headings like ‘Become a Western media darling’ and ‘Remind people that you are constantly under siege’. Here’s Step 6 (emphasis mine):

6. Rake in the cash
Watch as speaking invitations roll in from hardline right-wing Israeli and US organizations. No, it’s not a Jewish conspiracy, but for some odd reason they are in full agreement with your views on Islamic reform. You’re definitely on the way to winning Muslim hearts and minds if they’re supporting you!

I’ve always said that bad satire says more about its originator than its target, and the above tells us all we need to know about this blogger’s worldview. Still, Malik liked the blog enough to link to it in her article.

I used to get outraged about people like Nesrine Malik. Here we have an independent woman working in finance in secular London, telling women in the developing world that theocracy really isn’t so bad as they make out. Isn’t this an imperialist attitude?

But in the end, the appropriate response isn’t outrage: it’s a dark and riotous laughter at the arrant stupidity of it all.

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Obama the Communist!

October 26, 2008 at 8:51 am (elections, United States, voltairespriest)

Let’s wait and see if the Morning Star joins the long list of newspapers endorsing Barack Obama for the US Presidency. We never knew, but intrepid GOP Vice Presidential candidate Sarah “Hockey Mom” Palin has revealed that the Illinois Senator is in favour of something akin to the British Road to Socialism. Rrrradical! Next thing we know, he’ll be nationalising the banks and… err hold on a minute…

(Hat-Tip: The Huffington Post)

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I believe…in Hak

October 26, 2008 at 12:57 am (blogosphere, Blogroll, Jim D, secularism, truth)

Hak Mao gets it right, as usual:

* Only the lonely

Nice to see the ‘atheist buses’ are causing such angst:

It must be lonely, sometimes, being an ardent believer in nothing. Where do atheists go to meet their fellow irreligionists? How does one feel a part of something that has no meeting house, no rituals and no shared faith except in the absence of anything to have faith in?

All of the usual misconceptions trotted out yet again. Atheists do not ‘believe in nothing’. Neither is it reasonable to assume that life is hollow and meaningless — ‘lonely’ — in the absence of a deity.

Really, if your need for a panacea is that strong — take a valium.

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Official song of the recession

October 25, 2008 at 11:17 pm (capitalist crisis, Democratic Party, history, Jewish music, Jim D, United States, welfare)

Now that we are, even according to Gordon Brown, facing a recession, it’s time to remind you all of the great song of the last major recession/depression: Yip Harburg‘s “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?”. Here’s the definitive version, by the great Bing Crosby in 1933:

Harburg was a left-wing Democrat who called himself a socialist and whose main claim to fame was writing all the songs and a great deal of the script of The Wizard of Oz: a thinly-disguised paeon to Roosevelt and the New Deal. He’d be right back in fashion now. And if this recession/depression produces anything as good as ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’, I for one will be very pleased and surprised.

Musicologists may wish to note the similarities with other Jewish minor-key themes like Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby”.

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Daftness, Dogma, Delusion and Dorries

October 25, 2008 at 12:56 pm (abortion, Feminism, reaction, religion, secularism, truth, voltairespriest)

Nadine DorriesRegardless of one’s view of the Brown government, it is generally agreed amongst people of progressive political views that the recent passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was one of Parliament’s better moments. Those who followed the debate will doubtless also agree that no harm was done to the bill’s passage by the sheer ineptitude of the campaign against it, which seemed to the lay observer to consist of dogmatic statements by conservative media figures and religious protesters waving placards covered in the usual bilious slogans. Furthermore, the leading figures in th anti-choice campaign were the most extraordinary collection of political gargoyles, with all the media appeal and rhetorical skill of chimpanzees throwing faeces at the camera. Except that the chimps would have been funnier.

Prominent amongst these desultory leading figures was the wacky Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire and political one-trick pony who seems to devote an eyebrow raising amount of time to campaigning hysterically against a woman’s right to choose. Dorries was thoroughly politically worked over by liberal commentators in the run-up to the Commons votes on the bill, notably (amongst others) via a deliciously forensic week-long online crucifixion by Liberal Conspiracy. Eventually she found herself under such sustained attack that she closed off the comments facility on her website (though she’d have had to stop buying the papers as well in order to escape completely). But she hasn’t gone away, of course.

Idly flicking around the internet this morning, I came across one of Dorries’ latest articles, in which she appears concerned that the bill’s allowing the use of human-animal hybrid embryos for research purposes will create a race of Planet-of-the-Apes style “Humanzees”, who presumably will then take over the earth and remove all God-fearing anti-abortionists from the face of history. Here’s an excerpt from her comments in the Commons, as recorded in Hansard:

The Department of Health has argued that the insemination of animals with human sperm could never lead to a viable foetus. How can it know? Surely the nature of science and scientists is that they are incredibly experimental and inquisitive and constantly attempting to push back the barriers. How do we know what this would lead to in one, five or 10 years’ time?

How indeed? I have no doubt that the armies of Dr Frankensteins who have been just waiting for the excuse to create of a boy with the head of a stag beetle were cheering maniacally at the failure of Dorries’ valiant attempt to foil their diabolical plans. Still, it’s good to know that she (and perhaps the ghost of Charlton Heston) will be there to fight tooth and nail against the hordes of tank-driving marmosets if they should ever come racing up the cliffs of Dover.

There is a more serious point here though. It really is a matter of some concern that someone so manifestly ignorant of the most elementary facts in a debate such as this should be allowed to become so prominent. Dorries’ level of argument is not so far different from that which one would expect to find in an Evangelical super-church in the southern states of the USA, and it represents a cheapening of political discourse for even a wrong-headed and socially conservative campaign such as that against the HFE Bill to have allowed her to achieve such prominence.

One useful purpose is served by Dorries and her ilk, however. What she reveals is the reactionary, irrationalist and atavistic heart of the anti-abortion movement, the creeping desire for clerical control of the state which underpins its machinations, and the loathing of social progress which many of its protagonists harbour. It is to be hoped that this movement continues to be led by such clownish figures as Dorries, because one led by a charismatic and articulate individual would be truly terrifying.

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You want dark? Try Bergman…or Larkin

October 25, 2008 at 11:28 am (cinema, hell, Jim D, literature)

Film critic Peter Bradshaw has been musing on the “darkness” of recent fillums:

“There’s The Dark Knight, the latest, madly successful Batman movie; it’s nothing to do with the camp silliness of the 60s TV show or even the relative gaiety of the Tim Burton movies. This Batman returns the film franchise to the crepuscular gloom of the original comic book…Dark is absolutely de rigueur for superhero movies nowadays.

“Spider-man is relentlessly angst-ridden and the first X-Men film actually began at the gates of Auschwitz.

“Or there’s Harry Potter, something else for which the brightness dial is twisted resolutely anti-clockwise…because Harry has grown up, you see.

“Then of course there’s James Bond. When Roger Moore had the job – and indeed when Sean Connery did – you would get the odd quip, the flirtatious interlude with Moneypenny, and each and every violent encounter would be topped off with a nonchalant wisecrack…But the new 007, Quantum of Solace starring Daniel Craig, there are no jokes, no smart remarks. Bond is just a ruthless killer, driven by rage…

“Dark equals grownup; dark equals sexy, dark equals real. Dark is the new black.

“Or is it? I can’t help thinking that these movies aren’t really dark.

“You want dark? We’ll rent a DVD of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and afrerwards I’ll read aloud Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade. There – that’s really dark.

“A couple of lines of Aubade will make Christian Bale’s Batman whimper with fear, or it would if he’s got any sense…”

So let’s put it to the test:

Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not used, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Bloody hell! I think Bradshaw’s got a point. Anyone for Bergman?

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Tory-boy falls foul of Mandy

October 24, 2008 at 9:21 pm (Conseravative Party, Jim D, labour party, plutocrats, strange situations, Tory scum)

Well, Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool has wasted no time in bringing back the two characteristics of New Labour that he and his mentor Mr Tony Blair, epitomised so shamelessly: disdain for workers  and adoration of the super-rich.

Steve Bell on Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and flexible working

Oh yes: it also turns out that Mandy has been less than fully frank about his relationship with Oleg Deripaska, the Russian aluminium billionaire. Surprise, surprise…

And yet it is the hapless Tory-boy George Osborne who has come off the worse as a result of all this sucking-up to fabulously wealthy bankers and Russian oligarchs amongst the villas and yachts of Corfu. Part of the problem for Osborne, so it seems, is simply that he showed bad form in breaching the code of confidentiality that usually surrounds these gatherings and that sound chaps like Mandelson understand only too well.

But there’s a further aspect to it all that I hadn’t quite thought through until Alexander Chancellor spelled it out in today’s Graun; and it’s a pretty astonishing (though plainly true) point  to make about the contrast between a Tory and a Labour Party member:

“Osborne was a fool to draw attention to his summer activities for their exposure was always going to do him more harm than it would Mandelson, who has always been open about his fondness for the high life. It is hard to think of a revelation about him that could now surprise us.”

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