Can Andrew Mitchell tough it out? The Commons returns today and with two statements due (Theresa May on EU and home affairs opt outs, Patrick McLoughlin on the West Coast Main Line) MPs will expect the Chief Whip to be visible. Labour is likely to make the most of Mr Mitchell's discomfort: expect plenty of shouts of 'pleb'. But 'Snotch' Mitchell, as he was known at his Sussex prep school (Snotch = snob + Mitchell, I'm told), has more pressing problems. His support within Cabinet is lukewarm and informed more by loathing of the Police Federation that sympathy for his plight. The executive of the '22 - the men in grey suits - is likely to discuss his position later this week. No10 and Mr Mitchell hope that after initial turbulence things will die down. That may be right, in which case Mr Cameron will have to calculate whether his Chief Whip can regain the credibility he needs to run the Conservative Commons operation. From my conversations so far, I have my doubts.
The Telegraph reports today that the '22 is unlikely to be friendly to Mr Mitchell. On past form, this is unlikely to have any great effect on his mind-set, although it may underline his credibility problems to the leadership. One malcontent tells the paper that:
"He is not a credible figure. He is doing so much reputational damage to the party and to David Cameron. We are not happy with [him]. Locally, everybody is asking questions: 'Why is this guy still in a job?' The '22 is there for backbenchers to raise anything and everything. There are a lot who are still talking about Andrew Mitchell and who are cross."
In the Guardian, Jackie Ashley argues that Mr Cameron cannot arrive at the first PMQs after recess with his turbulent whip in tow:
"It's absolutely clear that the 'plebs' message has what the pollsters call resonance, or salience. It has cut through. People are genuinely livid about it. Tory MPs know it. The 1922 committee meeting will express it. Andrew Mitchell's first apology hasn't helped. Staying away from the Tory conference in Birmingham hasn't helped. His second apology hasn't helped.
"Cameron's next question is whether he is prepared to risk having the first, unusually important, prime minister's questions of the autumn totally derailed by the Mitchell affair. If he continues to dither and risk it, he looks even weaker and less politically in touch than he already seems, and will do himself considerable damage in the Tory party."
If Mr Mitchell is to find a saving grace, other than the continued patronage of his boss, it might be in the perceived militancy of the Police Federation. The Times (£) reports that officers have been told to back-off by ministers keen to return to service as normal. Paul Goodman, writing atConservativeHome, also takes up arms on behalf of the embattled Chief Whip, arguing that the Police Federation have acted as bullies pursuing a political agenda:
"I don't blame my fellow journalists for resenting Mr Mitchell throwing his weight around, and I can't fault my former Parliamentary colleagues for taking the same view. But I cannot for the life of me see why the Police Federation should dictate who serves in the Cabinet or not."
CABINET DIVIDED OVER EUROPE
As many as eight Conservative Cabinet members are willing to back calls for Britain to leave the EU, the Mail reports. Philip Hammond backed Michael Gove’s calls for greater sovereignty for Britain while speaking on the BBC’s Marr show yesterday. Another six ministers are understood to support Mr Gove privately. Leo McKinstry of the Express gave the remarks their proper context:
"Gove went further than just calling for a tougher stance in future talks... he even admitted that if there was a referendum on Britain’s current membership terms he would vote to leave.
"The importance of this can hardly be exaggerated. It is the first time in our modern history that a senior minister has actually advocated our departure from the EU."
The peril for Mr Cameron here is worth underlining: he remains vulnerable to the charge that he over-promises but under-delivers on Europe. If he has no intention of offering an in-out referendum, he can ill afford to allow his Cabinet colleagues to tittilate the backbenches with talk of withdrawal.
In the Times (£), Roland Watson writes that Mr Cameron’s gambit of offering an in/out referendum in the next parliament, and fighting to stay in, would leave him with a kingdom divided:
"Come 2017 or 2018, Mr Cameron will be facing a hopelessly divided Cabinet, with the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson and Chris Grayling at the very least ranged against him. And where will Michael Gove be?"
Mr Cameron also has more immediate concerns. He goes to the summit needing to offer the City some protection in the context of the proposed eurozone banking union. He will also need to placate EU leaders if Theresa May exercises Britain’s right to withdraw from 100 agreements on crime, justice and policing. The FT (£) reports that among the powers which will go are those available under the European Arrest Warrant, although Britain may negotiate to opt back in later down the line. The Telegraph, however, reports that the move has fallen foul of the Lib Dems and that any opt-out is "months away".
The Lib Dem fidelity to the European dream can frequently be seen by their coalition partners as defying all reason. An insight into the mindset, however, was on offer from Dr Vince Cable, when he spoke at the weekend. Vince warned of "conflict and extreme nationalism" in the eurozone collapses, the Telegraph reports.
As he edges closer to challenging one union, Mr Cameron will seek to maintain another when he visits Edinburgh today to sign the Section 30 order allowing the Scots to hold a referendum on independence. As theTelegraph reports, Mr Cameron will make a pointed visit to the Rosyth shipyard in Fife where the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is being built. British defence spending in Scotland is one of a number of potential campaign flashpoints which the FT (£) lists this morning, alongside the economy, energy and foreign affairs.
In the Telegraph, Alan Cochrane argues that Mr Cameron has won the phony war:
"Overall, the omens are set fair for a convincing rejection of Salmond’s plan to break up Britain. The polls suggest that support for independence is stuck at around one third of the electorate. Alistair Darling is proving an effective leader of the cross-party 'Better Together' campaign... The nationalists' economic plans are in a mess, and they have been told by José Manuel Barroso that an independent Scotland would have to apply all over again to join his club. Salmond is also facing a rebellion from activists over a belated attempt to end his party’s opposition to an independent Scotland being part of Nato."
BATTLE LINES DRAWN AFTER CONFERENCE SEASON
Writing in the Times (£) this morning, Tim Montgomerie calls for less rigid policy formulations from the party leaders. Arguing that the common ground is not always to be found in the centre ground, he writes:
"70 per cent of Britons want a referendum on Europe; 80 per cent support a tougher approach to crime. Large majorities don’t reside on the right of politics but occupy what Keith Joseph called 'the common ground'... You really can be Eurosceptic and cherish the NHS. It’s possible to favour less immigration and a more generous state pension.
"The Tories, we are constantly told, lost in 2001 and 2005 because they were too right-wing...In reality the Tory weakness at both of those elections was imbalance, not extremism."
The argument will be of interest to Conservative strategists as they plot a raid into enemy territory at the next election. As the FT (£) reports, the 100 marginal seats which will decide the next election contain largely working class and lower middle class voters, and Tory rhetoric has changed accordingly:
"While Mr Cameron continues to talk of the Big Society, the key themes of his speech were an echo of Margaret Thatcher’s pitch to Britain’s blue collar swing voters: a promise to cut welfare dependency, to help families on to the housing ladder, to be on the side of the 'strivers'."
CLEGG OFFERED CASH FOR CUTS
Nick Clegg will be offered state funding for political parties if he agrees to the boundary changes which the Conservatives are anxious to push through, reducing the Commons from 650 to 600 MPs and offering a 15-20 seat boost for the Conservatives, the FT (£) reports. The move is not entirely unexpected, I blogged about the possibility in August, and as much as the Conservatives may complain publicly about state funding of political parties, they too may be pleased to reduce their reliance on sometimes controversial donors.
VIRGIN TO CONTINUE WITH INTERIM WEST COAST CONTRACT
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin will announce today that Virgin will be asked to continue to run the West Coast Mainline service while bids are re-tendered, the BBC is reporting. The move comes in the wake of criticism in today’s Independent of the impact of budget cuts on the tendering process. The paper alleges that 30 senior posts were lost while 400 junior positions were given the axe in the Department of Transport. The savings, as the paper points out, pale in comparison with the £100m potential bill.
LOBBYING ARMY CHIEFS TO BE BANNED
Philip Hammond will bar retired military commanders from lobbying for arms deals according to this morning’s Independent. The Defence Secretary has promised to “shut the door” should military chiefs be proven to have attempted to alter the outcome of contract awards. Writing in today’s Telegraph, Andrew Gilligan criticises the “revolving door” approach seen at the MoD, adding:
"More broadly, yesterday’s disclosures might trigger a wider reappraisal of Britain’s reverence for its top military officers. The brass are among the few senior public servants still relatively immune from public criticism, with the monumental failures of Iraq and Afghanistan customarily blamed on dishonest politicians or cheese-paring officials. In fact, many of the most pig-headed mistakes were made by Britain’s military leadership.
"Yet old generals can also be a vital check and balance in the system: protesting against defence cuts, criticising the Government when it strays off course. Ministers will love it if they are banned from the MoD’s precincts, as the current Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, suggested yesterday, but the Forces may well come to regret it. Still, should that happen, the generals really will have no one to blame but themselves."
AID TO OVERTAKE POLICING BUDGET
While Thrasher fights for his political life, his old department is in rude health. The Mailreports today that the 2014 aid budget, currently slated at £12.6bn, will overtake the policing budget, which will have fallen to £12.1bn by that point. In the meantime, Justine Greening will today ask the EU to distribute its aid budget, of which Britain contributes a further £1bn, to poor, rather than middle income, countries, the Sun reports.
MILLER FAILS TO LEARN PREDECESSOR’S LESSON
You might think that the Culture Secretary would be particularly sensitive to links with the Murdoch empire, considering the brouhaha which erupted over Jeremy Hunt’s friendships. Maria Miller, however, has just appointed Nick King, a PR from Sky’s spinners of choice Hanover Communications, as her special advisor, the Mail reports. No conflict of interest there, then.
SUNDAY BEST - AND WORST, IN CASE YOU MISSED THEM
From the Independent on Sunday'sreport on Coalition 2.0, a particularly egregious example of political gobbledygook: "According to those working on the draft document, a foreword by the Prime Minister and Mr Clegg will call for a 'horizon shift' and 'power shift' in politics and society." Horizon shift???!! Someone get the red pen.
'Over a meal, one senior Lib Dem accused the business secretary of being vain. When asked whether that was really true, this Lib Dem's wife interjected: "Well, what's the hat about then?"' From Andrew Rawnsley,whose conference round upalso reports: 'Conservatives have been shaken from their assumption that the Labour leader would be an easy kill. An amusingly large number of Tories now tell me: "I wasn't one of those who said Miliband would be our secret weapon".'
'It was, in a phrase enjoyed by his colleagues, a “national satnav” speech. Miliband dominated the conference season by framing its debate. But – if that debate helps drag the Tories back to the centre ground – Cameron will be the true winner.'Matthew D'Anconaon how Ed Miliband may have unwittingly done Dave a favour.
"Then, on schools, Cameron performed the truly extraordinary feat of presenting himself, an Old Etonian, as a better and more authentic champion of the right of the many to the quality of education currently available to the lucky few. While Miliband pretended to be something he is not, a struggler who had survived his comprehensive school of hard knocks, Cameron walked off with Tony Blair's aspiration of "independent state schools for all". Left-wing commentators with tin ears wailed about the "oxymoron" of "spreading privilege", deaf to how it might be heard by less ideological or pedantic parents. That is what the argument is going to be at the general election. The party of balancing the books, of responsibility and aspiration, on the side of taxpayers and parents who want the best for their children, against – well, what?"John Rentoul assesses David Cameron's conference speech.
OWEN PATERSON: MINISTER FOR SEMICOLONS
And finally... The Sunday Times reported that Owen Paterson has set himself up as Whitehall’s answer to Lynn Truss. Following his arrival at Defra, Mr Paterson issued civil servants with a 10-point list of punctuation rules. Oxford commas and beginning sentences with “but” are both forbidden, usage of semicolons is to be maximised. The Times warns of the perils of dispensing with an Oxford comma, recalling that:
"The Times once published an unintentionally humorous description of a Peter Ustinov documentary, noting that 'highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector'. If the Oxford comma had been added, Mandela could still have been taken for a deity but at least he would not also have been described as a dildo collector."
Mr Paterson has been warned.
TWEETS AND TWITS
The class conscious nature of the London parking scene fills one returning MP with an abiding sense of despair:
@AVMitchell2010: "Back to grindstone.More aged street sleepers.Upper classes filling parking.Clapped out government.digging in.Deep gloom"
Sunday Times / YouGov: Con 33%, Lab 43%, Lib Dem 10%, UKIP 6%
12:00 pm: Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to meet Prime Minister David Cameron to agree the section 30 order for a referendum on independence. The First Minister is likely to hold a press conference after the meeting. St Andrew's House, Regent Road, Edinburgh.