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British report
by Euro Reporter
2015-03-28 11:17:57
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The next TV election debate will be messy. Just like Britain’s politics

It was just like old times. Jeremy Paxman was back where he belongs, on the television toying with politicians for sport, making the prime minister and leader of the opposition look like cubs who’d recklessly wandered into the den of an aged lion – one who had not lost his appetite for raw meat. The not-quite-a-debate was a throwback to politics the way it used to be: two men, two parties. Yesterday night’s broadcast was so nostalgic it was almost comforting. The not-quite-a-debate was a throwback to politics the way it used to be: two men, two parties, neatly colour-coded for simplicity, the red and the blue teams facing off in a binary choice. If anything, there was frustration that the encounter was not binary enough. The pundit class was agreed: there should have been a head-to-head, US-style presidential debate, pitting the two leaders against each other in direct combat. Miliband’s “Am I tough enough? Hell, yes” seemed scripted for just such an occasion. Next Thursday the frustration will deepen. ITV will screen an event that the Westminster village has written off in advance. That’s because it’s not a debate in the Nixon v Kennedy mould, but a seven-headed hydra that will be more Borgen than West Wing. The political chatterati already agree: it’ll be a disjointed, incoherent cacophony, simultaneously turning off the voters and belittling the politicians, reducing them to seven dwarves behind lecterns. Forget Obama v Romney. This will be Pointless.

britain_400It may be bad TV, and yet of the two this is surely the more fitting format. It’ll be a mess. It’ll address half a dozen subjects at once. The combatants will be speaking at cross-purposes. Which is why it’ll be a perfect reflection of the state of British politics in 2015. For ours is no longer the two-party system that in 1951 saw 97% of votes go to either Labour or the Conservatives. That vanished long ago. It’s not even a three-party system, not when polls show the traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, slumping in their share of the vote (even if they do cling on to a decent number of Commons seats). We are now in the era of four-, five- and six-party politics. Throw in Northern Ireland and you’re into double figures. But it’s about more than just numbers. In the Guardian’s preparations for the campaign that formally begins on Monday, we have begun to speak of not one election but at least five, each with its own shape and dynamic, distinct from the others. Most obvious is the battle for Scotland, where polls suggest a fundamental realignment. The prime contest there is between Labour and the Scottish National party, the latter apparently on course to wipe out the former – replacing it as the dominant Scottish force not only in the Edinburgh parliament but at the UK level too. Where once Scotland divided between Labour and Tory, after last September’s referendum the key fault line runs between unionist and nationalist – with Labour apparently on the wrong side of the divide. If Miliband clashes with Alex Salmond on Thursday, it’ll be this fight that will be played out.

Meanwhile, England hosts several different elections at once. In much of the east, especially in the coastal towns of East Anglia, combat will come down to a two-handed struggle between Ukip and the Conservatives. In parts of the north-west Ukip will be taking on Labour. In the south-west the Lib Dems join the fray, often facing down their erstwhile Tory partners in coalition. London has its own contours: less Ukip, perhaps more Green. And in Wales Plaid Cymru will dream of playing the SNP’s game, casting Labour as the party of a reviled Westminster establishment. The sheer complexity of all this will be painfully visible on Thursday. David Cameron might want to craft a message of inclusivity to appeal to the London marginals – but how to do that with Nigel Farage over his shoulder, itching to woo those one-time Tories disaffected at the changing face of Britain? Miliband might want to pander to voters in England, but he’ll get a death stare from Salmond if he tries. If the Labour leader tacks right to head off Ukip on immigration, Natalie Bennett of the Greens will be ready to pounce. If he tacks left to appeal to the Green-curious, Farage and Cameron will seize the opening. Voters are wise to this new landscape. If anything, they’ve grasped it more quickly than the political professionals. New research from Manchester University’s British Election Study released today found that voters who expect a hung parliament – and 41% do – are much less likely to vote Labour or Tory. You can see why. A vote for one of the big parties seems a waste if they are only going to go into coalition and dilute their programme. Better to vote for a smaller party, one that fits your ideological shape more closely – not least because that vote will have, as the study’s authors put it, “more clout” if those parties become kingmakers in a hung parliament.

The new fragmentation will be on vivid display on Thursday, embodied by a TV screen crammed with candidates jostling like market traders forced to share a single pitch. But their competing sales patter will reveal more than the unfamiliar, crowded chaos of contemporary British politics. It will also point up two themes that are increasingly likely to dominate our national conversation. First is nationalism. The SNP already dominates Scottish politics, but now it’s set to displace the Lib Dems as the third force in Westminster. Separatism can no longer be haughtily dismissed as a question for the fringes: it will sit at the heart of UK politics. And it’s not just the SNP (with Plaid in its wake). For what is Ukip if not a nationalist party? It claims to speak for more than English nationalism, but that’s a subtlety often lost on its supporters. The second theme is related. When Cameron and Farage clash on TV, it will be to outdo the other in Eurosceptic fervour – the prime minister stressing that, for all the Ukip leader’s posing, only he can deliver an in/out referendum in 2017. This, surely, is one of the key choices of 7 May. If Cameron returns to Downing Street, the country will be plunged into a two-year debate about its identity, its place in the world, its future and, inevitably, its past. If Miliband gets there, it won’t. Some of this epochal choice is bound to bubble through when Cameron, Farage and Miliband share the stage. Of course, a duel is more fun to watch than a 14-legged scrum. But that’s no reason to recoil from the noise, mess and complexity we’ll see next week. On the contrary, it will be a good guide to who we now are.


Britain's gas storage cuts heighten risks for winter

Britain's available natural gas storage capacity will fall to its lowest level in almost a decade this summer, increasing the system's reliance on supply from the continent and the risk of price spikes next winter. Utility Centrica on Thursday idled nearly 30 percent of Britain's biggest gas storage site, Rough, for six months to test wells. The site accounts for around 72 percent of Britain's gas storage capacity, National Grid data shows, and news of the cut to available storage sparked heavy buying of forward gas contracts, pushing up next winter gas prices. Centrica's cut followed one from rival SSE, which is mothballing a third of the gas withdrawal capacity at Hornsea from May 1. EDF Energy has also restricted output from its Hilltop storage site by half. "The capacity reduction will mainly impact in the winter itself when storage is almost empty and we are in a prolonged cold period," a trader at a European utility said.

Since Centrica flagged potential problems last week, traders have factored in the risks to UK supply by buying gas for next-winter delivery, when utilities typically rely on stored reserves to help meet peak demand. "A significant portion of risk premium had been steadily added to winter contracts," one analyst said. The last time Rough suffered such a major setback was February 2006 when a fire on a North Sea platform forced a facility-wide closure until June and a partial shutdown until late that year. This time, traders expect Britain next winter to be more heavily dependent on imports from Belgium and the Netherlands, itself facing shortages, to make-up for reduced stored supply. "However, there are two mitigating factors: there is potential for Rough to top up its stock in October and the continent could provide seasonal flexibility to the UK," Thomson Reuters Point Carbon gas analyst Francois Flament said in a note.

National Grid said it was too early to say how cuts to Rough storage capacity would impact supplies next winter. "This reduction in capacity will not be an issue over the coming months, as the country has a diverse range of supplies," a National Grid spokesman said. In fact, reduced storage this summer could create a glut of supply, pushing down prices and necessitating large-scale exports to Europe via a gas link with Belgium. Supply itself should be adequate even in tight periods by drawing on Norway, continental Europe, offshore fields and liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals, gas traders said. Britain can import LNG via three terminals served by producers such as Qatar, the UK's biggest provider. "Global LNG supply is on the increase with Australia and Papua New Guinea next to come on line and start exporting. This additional flexible supply source coupled with reduced Asian demand mitigates some of the risk of winter gas shortages due to lack of storage availability," the analyst said.


Ukip is the sleaziest and most disreputable party in Britain, voters say

Voters think UKIP is the most sleazy political party in Britain, a new poll has found. 63% of people branded Ukip “sleazy and disreputable” in the latest YouGov poll compared to 44% for the Conservatives and 33% for Labour. Of all the national parties the Green Party had the best reputation, accused of sleaze by only 12% of voters. 31% of people thought the Liberal Democrats were sleazy. Ukip’s sleaze rating was up 4% since December, when 59% of people called its reputation into question. The right-wing party had only a slightly better reputation than the bête noir of public opinion – bankers. Most people, 69%, considered bankers sleazy – just 6% above Ukip. The findings come after another poll last month in which around half of Ukip supporters admitted to being racially prejudiced. A string of rows over Ukip candidates and elected representatives is likely to have tarnished the party’s image.

Janice Atkinson MEP was expelled from the party on Monday night after allegations one of her aides asked for an inflated restaurant bill to claim on expenses. Another Ukip MEP, Jill Seymour, came under fire earlier this week for renting an office from her husband using taxpayers’ money. Earlier this month MEP David Coburn faced calls to resign after he compared an SNP minister, who is a Muslim, to the convicted terrorist Abu Hamza. Kerry Smith, a candidate for MP in a top target seat, was deselected in December after it emerged that he had made homophobic and racist remarks and joked about shooting poor people.

In 2013 Godfrey Bloom MEP left the party after he made a controversial remark referring to women as ‘sluts’. This February candidate Donald Grewar resigned after endorsing comments on the BNP website describing gay people are “perverts” and “paedophiles”. Ukip council candidate William Henwood quit last April after he suggested actor Lenny Henry should emigrate to a “black country”. A Ukip councillor David Silvester was suspended last year after he appeared to suggest that recent flooding had been caused by the passage into law of same-sex marriage.


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