Levy?s off the hook, as are we all

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

The sense of relief, visible across Michael Levy?s beaming face, was also palpable across much of Britain?s Jewish community. When word came late last week that there were to be no prosecutions in the cash-for-honours affair, there was a long, collective exhalation of breath. At least one rabbi dedicated his Shabbat sermon to the decision to press no charges against the former chief fundraiser to Tony Blair. Elsewhere, a community bigwig told me that the atmosphere in his shul was such that he half expected the congregation to bensch gomel, reciting the prayer uttered when one has been delivered from danger.

This is not such a surprise. First, Michael Levy has been a fixture of Anglo-Jewry for so long that there are many people who know him personally and regard him as a friend: it?s only natural if they?re relieved that he no longer has a sword hovering over his head. Others, mindful of his charitable work with Jewish Care and elsewhere, might have been dreading a prosecution for more direct reasons ? fearing the loss of one of the community?s most energetic figures.

But the source of the relief is much simpler. If Jews are glad that Lord Levy will not face criminal charges, it is partly because they sense that, had things gone the other way, they themselves would have been in the dock.

That?s not to say that the police investigation was motivated by antisemitism; I know very few people, including the most paranoid among us, who truly believe that. But it?s hard to deny that the pursuit of Michael Levy did at least give breathing space to some pretty nasty prejudices.

It was there in the media coverage, with its not-very-euphemistic references to Levy as a ?flamboyant North London businessman?. You could detect it in the unflattering descriptions of his ?white-carpeted? home and the references to his Hackney boyhood: newspaper code for arriviste. Readers of the quality press do not know the middle names of Ruth Turner or Jonathan Powell, the two Blair aides who were also in the police?s sights. Yet they know, because the newspapers told them, all about ?Michael Abraham Levy?.

Perhaps none of this is more than unpleasant. But it went deeper because of the nature of the cash-for-honours affair, which ensured that Levy became the focus for some age-old anti-Jewish myths.

First among them was the association of Jews and money. Every time the subject of Labour and cash arose, up popped a picture of Michael Levy. That inevitably played into the hoariest of stereotypes: when Rory Bremner chose to impersonate Levy, he dressed up as Fagin, complete with prosthetic hooked nose, singing ?You?ve got to pick a pocket or two?.

Levy?s closeness to the Prime Minister touched another antisemitic nerve ? further aggravated by the fact that several key Labour benefactors were also Jewish. I?m referring to the aged notion of a Jewish cabal, a secretive grouping which somehow inveigles its way next to the seat of power. Witness the then Labour backbencher Tam Dalyell?s warning that a ?cabal of Jewish advisers? was unduly influencing Tony Blair.

One way or another, cash-for-coronets brought to the surface a clutch of antisemitic myths, all of them centred on the person of Michael Levy. Think of an anti-Jewish trope ? Jews are rich; Jews lack taste; Jews are dishonest; Jews buy influence ? and the honours-for-sale story opened the door to it. If there is relief that this long, drawn-out saga is at an end, it?s partly because that door will now, we hope, be slammed shut.

There are some lessons we might learn from this episode ? and some we should not. We might conclude that even the most ancient of slurs on our people live on, buried deep in the soil of the national culture, usually dormant, and yet all too easily stirred from their slumber. We should see that these are rarely motives for action but they can affect the way our own actions are seen.

But we might also decide that this episode teaches us to keep our heads down, to stay out of the public eye and out of trouble. I?m already hearing talk like that, the suggestion that Jews should now be wary of giving to a political party lest it trigger unwanted associations. I hope that that is not the conclusion we draw. For we are citizens of this country with as much right to take part as anyone else ? no matter if others occasionally see us through lenses they should have discarded centuries ago.

Change this flawed drug law for our children’s sake

Published in the Evening Standard

London parents will be torn by this decision, divided not just among themselves but within themselves too. Gordon Brown's proposed review of the reclassification of cannabis - apparently aimed at branding dope once more as a Class B, rather than as a less serious Class C drug - will split many Londoners of a certain age in two. It will pit their youthful selves against the people they are now.

Many will have some experience, if not fond memories, of the drug. They will be like the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith who last week, along with eight other members of the cabinet, admitted she had smoked pot in her university days. As more than one senior politician has confessed, it was pretty hard to go through college in the 1970s or 1980s without coming across the weed.

And yet those same people, who 20 years ago sat in foggy, dingy rooms passing round a joint, are now mothers and fathers - and with the haze of youth gone, they tend to see the issue rather differently.

Now they are troubled by the reports of the widespread availability of drugs to London's schoolchildren, the sense that at teenage parties cannabis is on offer along with the beer and cigarettes. Is that so different from the sweaty, cloudy gatherings of their own youth? Yes, they say. In a curious twist on the perennial generation gap, today's parents worry that the dope of 2007 is not like it was back in the old days. As if nostalgic for the mild herbal highs of the past, they insist that contemporary cannabis is a different drug altogether. Witness the recent speech by David Cameron - something, one suspects, of an authority on this subject - as he explained how much stronger the drug is now than it was back when...and there he stopped himself.

He wasn't wrong. Dope does indeed come in stronger varieties now than it used to. The smellier it is, the stronger it is - hence the name "skunk" - with a higher content of the main psycho-active ingredient THC. While old dope might have contained just 1% THC, the newer strains can include 20% or more. They kick in much faster and more powerfully, triggering hallucinations and a variety of side effects.

Still, plenty of forty- and fiftysomething Londoners will have an instinctive sympathy for relaxing the laws on cannabis, either keeping the drug classified as Class C, as it is now, or going further, towards full legalisation. The arguments will come easily to them - after all, they probably used to make them to their own parents.

First comes the view that criminalising cannabis wastes police time, having them bust student parties when they should be out fighting real crime rather than a minor, victimless infraction. Second, prohibition of pot, like prohibition of alcohol in 1920s America, hardly works: if the estimates are right, there are 2m Britons happily puffing away and one in two school-aged children have tried cannabis at least once.

Third, used to come the view that cannabis was fairly harmless, less bad for you, the serious potheads used to say, than alcohol or cigarettes. But in recent years that argument has become harder to make, as more evidence emerges of the link between cannabis use and mental health problems. Pro-legalisation campaigners insist the number of dope-smokers who develop either psychosis or schizophrenia is too small to count as any kind of basis for forming policy. But that's hard to square with the most serious expert opinion.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists reports that "Regular use of the drug has appeared to double the risk of developing a psychotic episode or long-term schizophrenia" and that "adolescents who used cannabis daily were five times more likely to develop depression and anxiety in later life." Indeed, "If you start smoking it before the age of 15, you are 4 times more likely to develop a psychotic disorder by the time you are 26." The psychiatrists cannot be definitive on why teenagers might be particularly vulnerable, but their working explanation is straightforward: until the age of 20, the brain is still developing, undergoing a process of "neural pruning". Any substance that interferes with that process cannot be helpful.

This, to me, is the crucial argument and it seems to be what prompted the government change of heart. Privately, Gordon Brown says that it's the risks to the mental health of the young, rather than any worry about police time, that is motivating him to seek reclassification.

To their credit, pro-legalistion campaigners, such as the lobby group Transform, do not deny that danger. But they insist that legalisation would be a better solution. If there were authorised outlets selling cannabis, then the shopkeepers could simply refuse to sell dope to those under-age. You'd also sweep away the entire illegal trade in dealers and suppliers and would have an answer to concern over ever-stronger strains of cannabis. "You could just walk into a shop and choose between 3%, 5%, 10% or 22%," says Transform director Danny Kushlik. "As opposed to now, when you go to see some bloke on a street corner and you have no idea what it is you're getting."

It's a logical, even seductive idea - in theory. In practice, it would surely be no harder for a 15 year old to get dope from a legal shop than it is for him to buy cigarettes now. Kushlik admits as much, believing that you can never hope to stop kids engaging in risky behaviour. More importantly, it's not in the realm of political reality to imagine Gordon Brown proposing legal cannabis cafes - not when he's already winning plaudits for staking out the terrain of Middle England social conservatism.

Which means that, in the current context, the right move is surely to reclassify cannabis as a more serious drug. If it's dangerous to smoke cannabis too much and too young, then society needs a simple, clear way to send that message. Right now, there's too much confusion: one survey of primary school children taken shortly after cannabis had been downgraded found that 86 per cent thought the drug was legal and 79 per cent that it was safe. It's not safe for the young - and Gordon Brown is is right to use the law to say so.

How Ken can beat the blond bombshell

Published in the Evening Standard

Jeepers, as the man himself might say: what a treat is in store for Londoners over the next nine months. Forget Hillary vs Barack. The real political action of 2008, the mightiest slugfest, will be right here in London, as Ken dukes it out with Boris - King Newt vs the blond pretender.

Everyone will be relishing that prospect except, perhaps, Ken Livingstone himself. Until Boris Johnson dived in, the Tory barrel contained only minnows who would have detained the mayor no longer than a pre-breakfast snack. Now that you think about it, even the bigger fish sought by David Cameron - Michael Portillo, Sebastian Coe, John Major, Greg Dyke - would probably have been gobbled up pretty swiftly. But Johnson could pose a genuine threat to the mayor's hopes for re-election.

He begins with instant name recognition. He's a celebrity and, according to the anecdotal evidence, a popular one. I spoke to a voluntary sector bigwig yesterday who said the last person he'd seen work a room like Boris was Bill Clinton.

What's more, he confronts Livingstone with several of Livingstone's own advantages. He can pose as the rebel, the man who breaks all the rules (though he cannot, as Ken could in 2000, claim to be running in defiance of his party machine). Like Ken, he doesn't speak politician but English (albeit in a unique, Enid Blyton-esque dialect.) When it comes to unstuffy unpredictability, and poking the establishment in the eye, he could out-Ken Ken.

More prosaically, Boris could succeed where the previous Tory challenger, the twice-defeated Steve Norris, failed: by mobilising the entire Conservative vote in London, appealing to both Middle England types in Bromley and metrosexuals in Notting Hill. Some Boris boosters believe he could also win over Lib Dems drawn to his libertarian bent and younger voters who might otherwise not turn out.

If this is the scale of the Boris challenge, what can Ken do to beat it back, to stay in the job he loves? An appealing first move would be to neutralise Boris's celebrity. I noticed in conversations with the Ken camp yesterday that they referred to the Tory would-be candidate as "Johnson" rather than by his first name. A small thing, and it could be futile, but it gives a clue to the thinking in City Hall.

Next will come an attempt to use Boris's fame against him. As a prolific commentator, Johnson leaves behind a voluminous paper trail: Ken's team will be poring over every column, essay and outburst in the Boris canon, hoping to dig out words their new opponent will regret. He's said so much about so many things, the Livingstone people are unlikely to be disappointed.

And it won't just be words that could haunt him. Labour can gently remind Londoners of Boris Johnson's proven role in helping a convicted fraudster - fellow Old Etonian Darius Guppy - have a journalist beaten up. A tape recording had Johnson not questioning the morality of the action, merely asking how badly

the intended victim was to be hurt. With the tabloids now regarding candidate Johnson as a legitimate target, more skeletons could soon be exhumed. It is at least conceivable that Johnson may stumble, as Jeffrey Archer did before him, before he gets to next May's election.

Meanwhile, Livingstone will do his best to drag the contest onto the terrain of policy, where he reckons Boris is weakest. Ken's already taunting him over his failure to vote in the House of Commons on crucial London questions, from Crossrail to free travel for the elderly and disabled. He can demand Boris tell us where he stands on the congestion charge: opposing it would be green suicide with the capital's environment groups, yet London Tories have fought against it. So far, as Ken himself has noted, the Tories have kept Boris from facing any questions - letting everyone, from Cameron down, speak on his behalf. That's surely an indication that the candidate doesn't yet have the answers.

They'll try to get him too on non-London matters, seeking to position Boris as outside the London consensus. Livingstone has been brilliant in winning over this city's ethnic minorities: how will London's Muslims react to Johnson's support for the Iraq war, for example, (a war which, according to one poll, enjoyed the backing of just 18% of Londoners)? The aim will be to get Londoners to see past the gags and jolly japes and find a man too right wing for this city. Or as one Ken aide puts it, "Johnson is a reactionary in buffoon's clothing."

Class may well be part of the assault, too. Gordon Brown has stumbled in trying to target Cameron's poshness, but something tells me Livingstone is the one politician who - with a well-judged joke - could pull it off. Perhaps by branding Boris as the Bertie Wooster candidate, out of touch with the reality of ordinary Londoners' lives.

Above all, Livingstone will try to play to his one clear advantage over Johnson. OK, the mayor will say: if this was a contest to choose a new host for Have I Got News For You, then maybe it would be a close call. But this is not about being a laugh. This is about running a city - and Boris Johnson is simply not up to that task.

For my money, this is the decisive argument. Johnson may well be amusing. But the question Londoners must answer is whether he is the man they would want leading this city's response to another 7/7. Could Boris handle the collapse of Metronet? Could he really make the complex set of financial and political judgements relating to Crossrail? Ask this question of those who take some of the most crucial decisions in London and they already know the answer: it can't be Boris.

Yet there is a risk in this approach for Ken. To cast himself as the solid, statesmanlike man of competence against lovable Boris would be to cede one of his biggest advantages. So Livingstone has to carry on being fun, too. Luckily, he still has that knack. Handed a biography of Johnson, he said it was the scariest book he'd read since The Silence of the Lambs.

This is how Ken has to define the battle ahead - insisting that he'll match Boris for laughs, but that he'll be able to run this city at the same time. And that's a boast the chaotic blond whirlwind just cannot make.

My hopes and fears for the great health shake-up

Ministers' new plan for the health service in London is breathtakingly bold. But can the NHS absorb yet more change?

When I read about the new plan for a radical overhaul of London?s health service published yesterday, I confess I searched for mention of one hospital in particular. I wanted to know what fate Sir Ara Darzi, the acclaimed surgeon tapped by Gordon Brown to be a junior health minister and author of the new vision, had in mind for University College Hospital.

That?s because both my sons were born at UCH. The birth of our eldest was especially tricky and the staff at UCH were extraordinary: quick, thorough and skilful, but also dedicated, caring and hugely reassuring. During those long, difficult 36 hours, we relied utterly on UCH ? and I?ve felt a bond to the institution ever since. It means that whenever I hear politicians discuss the NHS in the abstract, it?s the night shift on the maternity ward at UCH I have in mind. Any policy change, any bright new ministerial scheme, always prompts the same question in my mind: will it help or hinder those remarkable men and women who brought my first child into the world?

For I came away from that experience with a gut instinct about the NHS. It begins with deep admiration for the dedication and ability of the staff, and extends into the belief that the public service ethos is the NHS?s most valuable asset ? one that should never be taken for granted. That?s why I?ve always been wary of farming out various health services to private providers: it may make economic sense, but I fear it risks eroding that unique sense of duty that makes a doctor run an extra test on a sick child or makes a nurse smooth the brow of a dying pensioner. The NHS runs on values that money can?t buy.

Given all that, my heart sinks at talk of further restructuring of the health service, in London or anywhere else. I know from my own conversations with health professionals how deeply they resent the radical shake-ups that have serially rocked the health service for the last two decades. Tony Blair?s constant demands for reform were exhausting. Surely the NHS should be simply given the money it needs and its staff left to get on with their jobs.

In that context, I was pleased by the first signals sent by Gordon Brown. His appointment of Alan Johnson as health secretary, skilled at calming troubled waters, suggested the Blair era of permanent revolution was over. Under Brown, the NHS would surely be allowed to consolidate the changes of recent years and to settle down. Before he entered Downing Street, Brown said privately that within a year polls would show voters happy once more with the government?s handling of the NHS. The outlook seemed calm.

Yet Sir Ara?s plan suggests the opposite is true, that the restless urge for reform has not departed with Blair but has been inherited by his successor. If anything, the Darzi blueprint is even more radical - the biggest set of changes since the founding of the NHS, according to some experts - with a tangible, visible impact. Over the coming decade, Londoners may see 150 new ?polyclinics?, centres that come halfway between a GP?s practice and a district general hospital. Under the plan, there would be more specialist hospitals, doing for specific areas of medicine what Moorfields now does for eyes and Great Ormond Street does for children. Staff currently found in big hospitals, including consultants, will instead move out into the community. Sir Ara says there will be no closures, but some local hospitals are bound to find themselves downgraded, no longer providing A & E services for example.

By rights, I should be shuddering at all this ? yet another restructuring, when the government should just get out of the way and let doctors and nurses get on with it. But I?m not.

I admit that part of the explanation lies in the fact that this plan has not come from a politician, but a doctor ? one who has spent eight months working with his fellow clinicians on what everyone in the field agrees is a quality piece of work. I know, I know: that?s why Brown picked Darzi for the task, to reassure voters who are more likely to trust a surgeon than a minister. If that was the motive, it?s worked.

More importantly, Darzi is surely right in his starting point: the current system is not good enough. Life expectancy in Canning Town is seven years less than in Westminster, yet there are fewer GP?s per patient in the areas which are neediest. The London NHS is less productive, too: doctors in London?s large acute hospitals saw 24% fewer patients than their colleagues elsewhere in the UK. Londoners are not oblivious to this problem. One in four of us is dissatisfied way the NHS is run in the capital, a higher rate than the rest of Britain.

To my layman?s ear, the medical logic sounds right too. If studies have established that victims of strokes, for example, fare better when treated at specialist centres, then it makes sense to have seven ?hyper-acute? stroke centres, rather than forcing under-resourced staff to cope with strokes at every district general in the city. You have to be impressed too by the plan?s emphasis on mental health and long-term illness, which together comprise the bulk of the NHS?s workload, yet which are rarely treated as priorities.

Above all, it has to be true that a health service devised for the London of 1948 no longer fits the city we have become. We are larger, more diverse; we even have new ailments (the rise of diabetes is an example.) In a decade, there will be 8.2m Londoners. The old system is just too creaky to bear that load.

That said, Sir Ara deserves to be watched with a keen eye. He cannot be cavalier in his treatment of some of the dozen or so district generals that may end up losing out: people have an attachment to their local hospital (as I know from my own bond with UCH). For that reason, the new minister needs to keep his promise to bring people with him, to consult and to honour what he says was the maxim that guided his own report: ?`Localise where possible, centralise where necessary.?

But this is a test for Gordon Brown, too, now we know that he believes in reform no less passionately than Tony Blair. The question is whether he can administer the reform medicine ? and get better results.