Thursday, 27 September 2012

Serious and solid is good news for Nick Clegg..

The Lib Dem conference ended with a Nick Clegg speech which has generally been well received by this morning’s papers. His advisers will be pleased with the broadly favourable coverage. If one of the most persistent accusations against the Lib Dems has been frivolity, then they will welcome descriptions of his speech as serious and solid, even if hasn't made most front pages.

Leader writers have backed Mr Clegg’s choice of tone this morning. TheTimes (£) felt that Mr Clegg succeeded in challenging his party to “be a liberal party and the third party of government”. The Independentdescribed the Deputy Prime Minister as “defiant”, even if their sketchfound him “big on hand signals, but short on inspiration”.

Commentators were less forgiving. On the right, Stephen Glover in theMail attacked Mr Clegg’s pensioner means testing in a piece headlined: “Plundering the shrinking and hard earned assets of pensioners is the daftest idea I have heard in a long time.” Polly Toynbee in the Guardianattacked Mr Clegg’s warning that an excess of government debt could lead to extremism, claiming that:

“Naïve, vain or obtuse, he has been useful yellow camouflage for this most radical and ideological of Conservative governments. As if still beguiled by Cameron's affable rose garden manner, Clegg has colluded with the great Conservative blueprint for dismantling the state, outsourcing every service and withering welfare.”

Elsewhere in the Guardian, Martin Kettle took the more moderate view that trust needs to be built between the Lib Dems and Labour to allow a progressive alliance at the next election. The article will please the Lib Dem hierarchy which has pushed the message that coalition government is here to stay all week.

The Labour-Lib Dem alliance took one small step closer to reality yesterday with Paddy Ashdown’s return to the fold. As James Forsyth writes in the Spectator, the announcement that Lord Ashdown will return to help with the 2015 election campaign signals Mr Clegg’s desire to stay on. In appointing a pro-Labour figure, it also says something about the direction of travel the party sees itself taking.

All in all, it has been a good week for the Lib Dems, as I wrote inyesterday’s blog:

I suspect we are going to have to start talking about a Lib Dem recovery at some point. No, really. Nick Clegg's speech completed a fairly successful week for the Deputy Prime Minister. The polls are still terrible, and his prospects might look bleak, but as Dan Hodges argued earlier, Labour's support is soft and as we close on the election, the economy picks up and Labour's deficiencies come under scrutiny, their position can only improve. Andrew Mitchell's implosion has done great damage to the Tories, which helped the Lib Dems no end this week: with the Conservatives silenced, Mr Clegg was able to get his fairer taxes/soak the rich message up in lights, and it's gaining traction.


Dave has been speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in New York . The tone and phrasing of his rebuke to the assembly for failing to intervene in Syria was remarkably strident. The Guardian reports him saying:

"The blood of these young children is a terrible stain on the reputation of this United Nations. And in particular, a stain on those who have failed to stand up to these atrocities and in some cases aided and abetted Assad's reign of terror.

"If the United Nations charter is to have any value in the 21st century we must now join together to support a rapid political transition. And at the same time no one of conscience can turn a deaf ear to the voices of suffering."

Aides confirmed that the intended targets of the remarks were Russia and China , both of which have used their Security Council veto to prevent intervention in Syria . Whatever happened to the Judo détente?

Dave’s appearance on the David Letterman show did not go entirely to plan, as we report:

“The Prime Minister was caught out on the Late Show when Mr Letterman asked him to name the author of Rule Britannia and he answered incorrectly. He also failed to explain the meaning of “Magna Carta”.
“After his errors, Mr Cameron - educated at Eton and Oxford - joked: ‘That is bad, I have ended my career on your show tonight.’”

Despite the awkward moments, the Prime Minister managed to come across as statesmanlike and warm, a performance which will win friends on the other side of the Atlantic and show that he retains his star power. As James Kirkup reports in the Telegraph:

So what did we learn tonight?  First,  Eton College and a First (in PPE) at  Oxford don't make you omniscient. And second, David Cameron is human, makes mistakes and can take a joke.
The PM may feel a bit silly tonight, but he's suffered no real harm. Who knows? This could even do him some good: in politics, a little humility goes a long way.


Former Defence Minister Gerald Howarth has been quoted in today’sMail saying that Tory backbenchers are “in despair” over the Government’s £12bn international aid spend. Sir Gerald tells the paper:      

“Most people in this country will think that 0.7 per cent is a somewhat arbitrary figure, and certainly I have not yet met a Conservative outside the immediate confines of the Government who believes that it’s right to ring-fence overseas aid and to cut our Armed Forces.”

This is the crux of the issue for the Conservative Party at large. At a time when spending is being cut elsewhere, the fencing off of aid feels out of step with the wishes of the party. On the other hand, you cannot claim that aid spending is simply a sop to the Lib Dems, as Mr Howarth does, it was part of the Cameroon re-branding exercise long before the Coalition, and Dave is unlikely to part with it now.          


Labour have been quiet on Nick Clegg’s mansion tax proposals, and some Conservatives have conceded that they may need to strike a bargain with Mr Clegg along these lines if they are to win further cuts elsewhere. One man, however, is standing firm. Boris tells the Telegraph:

“I like Nick Clegg but he can’t be serious. These proposals are a non-starter.
“He knows it. I know it. The idea of a mansion tax is crazy. The idea of a mansion tax by the back door through vastly inflated council tax bills is nonsense.
“These taxes will disproportionately hit London and Londoners, penalising people simply because of circumstance, trapping people who in many cases are cash poor. London is the motor of the UK economy; kicking it hard makes no sense at all.”

After a wildly successful summer, the Mayor of London appears determined to arrive at Birmingham, where he speaks on Tuesday, as the darling of the rank-and-file, and these comments are yet more proof that he has a knack for using his role as a senior figure, unbound by being part of a parliamentary coalition, to find the party’s sweet spot. Dave will be getting very worried about his conference speech. 
In the meantime, the Conservatives look vulnerable to a backlash over the Lib Dem means testing of the elderly idea. As the FT (£) reports, grey anger is building:

Inland Revenue data from 2009-10 tax returns, show that taxpayers with higher incomes from pensions predominantly live in Conservative constituencies. Some 47 per cent of Conservative MPs represent areas where average incomes from pension are high, while only 9 per cent of Labour MPs represent similarly wealthy areas.”


Thrasher seems to have upset someone at the Sun quite badly. After the paper broke the gate-gate story, it is now pushing the line that Mr Mitchell accepted £11,000 from Brompton Capital, whose owner is a firm domiciled in the tax haven of Jersey . The Lib Dems received £777,000. Although the payments were entirely legal, the story still leaves a bad taste after Danny Alexander’s threats earlier this week. It is a testament to the strength of feeling around Mr Mitchell at present that he is taking the bulk of the criticism, not the Lib Dems.

The Mail, meanwhile, reports that Mr Mitchell has a history of class conscious soundbites. After taking over as Chief Whip from former miner Patrick McLoughlin, he allegedly told colleagues:
“For far too long, this place has been run like a sergeant’s mess. I want it to be more like an officers’ mess.”

In the meantime, we report that Mr Mitchell is being advised to steer clear of the Conservative conference lest he overshadow proceedings. Sources close to the Chief Whip say that he intends to attend the whole event. However, this has become a no-win situation for the party hierarchy – if Mr Mitchell does not attend then it will appear to be an admission of further guilt, if he does then he will take the spotlight from the podium. Expect Thrasher to be in Birmingham , but don’t expect the papers to drop this one any time soon.


Ousted Defence Minister Sir Nick Harvey has told the Guardian that Trident is likely to be downgraded owing to the cost of maintenance and the changing geo-political picture, particularly regards relations with Russia . No doubt Tory backbenchers will take the news well, knowing that the money saved can be put to use meeting the international aid target…


The jockeying for positioning has already begun. Allan Johnson has been warning Red Ed in the Guardian that the polls are not reliable at this point in the electoral cycle. Meanwhile the Mail reports that Harriet Harman has told the Spectator she will back curbs on the freedom of the press.
Only another week of this…


Ed Vaizey was “Minister of Trade – for half an hour”, he reveals in an interview with the Independent. Sadly, it wasn’t to be:
“’I was thinking to myself... I'm an incredibly talented minister and they obviously think that despite my huge portfolio I can handle this with absolute aplomb. I sat there thinking of all the things I would do as Trade minister,’ he recalls.
And then his Liberal Democrat colleague Ed Davey walked into the room and the civil servant told Vaizey: ‘I'm so sorry, I've been briefing the wrong minister.’


Today’s Mandrake column in the Telegraph reports how George Osborne, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey managed to find time in their schedules to take in a spot of Wagner in Tony Hall’s box at the Royal Opera House.

The day of Nick Clegg's speech is as good a one as any to bunk off for a bit of culture, not least if it's the magnificent Bryn Terfel. We need more politicians to show an interest in the arts: less fake football laddism, more valkyries.


The euro crisis has been off the radar for many while the conference season is on. It has not escaped the attention of the markets, however. The FTSE 100 lost £23.2bn yesterday as civil disorder in Spain and Greece threatened to wreck budgetary reforms there. You can follow all of today’s developments on our liveblog.


And finally… Margaret Thatcher has won some unlikely new fans. Although the Iron Lady is said to have once greeted a visiting head of state with the salutation, “I hate communists”, the Chinese have taken her to heart, we report. Lady Thatcher’s style of crisis management is being used to train future Communist Party leaders in Beijing . With that in mind, whatever Argentina do about the Falklands , they better not touch the  Diaoyu/Senkaku islands…


Tom Harris rejects claims he has been diversifying: 
@tomharrismp “If you've received an email from me offering to sell you some exotic men's underwear (!) then please believe me: my account's been hacked.”


In The Telegraph

Best of the rest
Nick Pearce and Gavin Kelly in the FT (£) - Politicians cannot hide from UK finances
David Aaronovitch in The Times (£) - UKIP’s disturbed vision is a Tory nightmare

Today: William Hague meets Ecuadorian counterpart in New York to discuss Julian Assange’s asylum claim. Bank of England publishes minutes of last financial policy committee meeting.
09:30 am: Latest Q2 GDP revision published.