Sort it out? take it as Red: Julia Gillard may have looked a little ridiculous with her Edna Everage act in Brussels, but she has one fan in the UK: Baroness Shirley Williams, pioneering woman Cabinet minister in the Wilson governments of the 1970s (as education secretary and paymaster general), co-founder of the SDP in the 1980s, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, and daughter of Vera Brittain (Testament of etc.). At the launch of a festschrift on the occasion of her 80th birthday, (with contributions from Germaine Greer, Robert Reich and, of course, Crispin Tickell among others) Williams told Crikey that she agreed with Greer’s remark in the book that the position of women in politics had in some ways gone backwards, increasingly appearing only as “leaders’ wives” or “Blair babes”, and that it was good to see Australia “breaking the mould”. But she had some advice for Gillard as leader of a coalition: “my experience is that the only way to get what you want in the end, you have to end negotiations and appeal directly to the people.” Williams wouldn’t say whether she was referring to the Lib-Lab coalition of the ’70s, or the, erm, Lib-Con coalition today, noting only in departing that  “it’ll take an Australian woman to sort out Australia”.

Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of … Whether that latter coalition will be harmonious for much longer remains to be seen. Tomorrow, Lord Browne will deliver his report on the future of university fees and funding and he is almost certain to recommend a doubling of the ceiling of tuition fees to about £6200, and greater freedom for universities to set their own rates. Fees can always be deferred to postgraduate payment, but Browne is also recommending that the interest rates on this — which currently tracks inflation — be elevated, although so too will the income threshold at which repayment begins. The report portends a crisis for the Lib-Dems, whose vote is heavily based among students, and all of whose MPs signed a pre-election pledge to oppose tuition fee rises. Lib-Dems can abstain as part of the Coalition agreement — and at least 30 have said they will do this or even oppose the report’s recommendations — but how would it look for the deputy Prime Minister to so do? Yet, how else will Nick Clegg, member for Sheffield Hallam, practically a university in a seat, survive past the next election? And we’re not even six months in.

Vested interest: However, David Cameron is not feeling comfortable and relaxed either — having had to admit this morning that the story about the death of aid worker Linda Norgrove, released by the US yesterday, is so much camel cack. Initially, it was said that Norgrove was killed “seconds from rescue” by a captor wearing a suicide vest  who grabbed her as he detonated, as the US special forces over-ran their lair. It now appears that she was killed by a grenade thrown in by US forces. Quite possibly some form of rescue mission was Norgrove’s best hope, but the suicide vest story is something more than a mere miscommunication — it sounds like something dodged up, either on the ground or in an army media response unit. As such, it simply adds to the mountain range of lies piling up over the two wars in the past 10 years, from WMDs themselves, through brave she-soldiers fighting off brigands and being rescued from enemy hospitals, to their successive transformation as human rights wars, feminist wars, and who knows soon, environmental wars (“have you see the carbon footprint of the Taliban?”). It’s one death among many, but there is something that will turn not merely the public’s head, but its stomach.

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Now a phantom of the opera: Joan Sutherland is dead. Dead is Joan Sutherland. Joan Joan Joan Sutherland is dead is dead. Dead Joan Sutherland is, is dead, is dead, is dead is dead. Is dead.

Terror on the tube: Speaking of which … no, not a good link. Five years after the event, the full inquest into the 7/7 London bombings has begun, a process that will wind on into next year — and overlap, presumably, with the findings of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War. Even after one day, a picture is already emerging of a shambolic response by the underground system, and the emergency services, who initially did not believe that smoke and stalled trains was the possible result of a terrorist act. As always, the darkness is in the details, such as the text message from leader Mohammed Siddique Khan announcing that he was delaying the atrocity by a day: “Having major problem. Cannot make time. Will ring you when I get it sorted. Wait at home.” Or that the fourth bomber, having failed to detonate on the tube, decided to blow up a bus — but not before stopping at the Kings Cross branch of WH Smith’s newsagent to buy a battery. Everyone has stopped at the Kings Cross WH Smith’s. Everyone has said, at some time or another, “sorted”. It is not the incomprehensibility of the acts that will make the coming days so harrowing, but their proximity, not what divided them from us, but what was shared.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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