In the Times (£) today, Roland Watson considers whether Andrew Michell can cling on. Tellingly, he says some in Downing Street now believe it was a mistake to put it all down to whether the Chief Whip used the word "pleb" or not. Mr Cameron is braced for "mayhem in the Commons" next Wednesday, and will judge how his colleague gets on through the autumn. Those who have spoken to Mr Mitchell say he is confident that he can stay on, and that he believes he is secure in the Prime Minister's support. He intends to continue as usual after he meets police representatives in his constituency today. The police seem to want to re-run the debate with him, and intend to ask him to clear the air by telling them what he did say at the gates (surely though if their colleague who bore the brunt of Mr Mitchell's outburst has accepted his apology, it is not up to them to pursue it?). For our part, we have concluded that Mr Mitchell should do Mr Cameron a favour and step aside. It is evident from the attitude of Tories in Birmingham that he commands little respect and too much contempt from his colleagues. The Prime Minister came away from his conference with the bounce of his successful speech. Number 10 has, since the summer, shown signs that it is getting on top of the omnishambles it struggled with since the Budget. Whatever the teeth-grinding frustrations of giving the police a victory, Mr Mitchell is an astute politician who must realise that his continuation on the front bench for the time being is a distraction. Mr Cameron, it should be pointed out, is not one to be chivvied by the media, so he may dig in deeper.
The Chief Whip still has the Prime Minister’s backing, for now, but the sky continues to blacken overhead. As I blogged earlier this week, now would be a good moment were Mr Cameron to decide to move. Today’sTelegraph leader column puts it baldly, the Chief Whip should go:
"It is, of course, unfair that a successful ministerial career should end thanks to an intemperate outburst... Yet that – like the question of what was actually said that day – is almost beside the point. In the end, it is not so much a matter of principle as of politics. If he stays, Mr Mitchell can do little good, and much damage. For the sake of his party, he should do the decent thing and stand down."
Elsewhere in the Telegraph, Fraser Nelson also sees Mr Mitchell as an obstruction to putting across the Conservative message that it is they who are fighting class inequality:
"Rightly or wrongly, Mitchell’s colleagues are under the impression that he is finished. Not that he’ll quit: word is that he still doesn’t understand the gravity of his offence.
"[The episode] has made it harder for David Cameron to advance the essential Conservative case: that if you loathe the inequality that seems hardwired into British society, voting Tory is the best way of doing something about it."
ARMIES CONGREGATE ON THE MIDDLE GROUND
The next election will be won from the centre. That is the message which Patrick Wintour of the Guardian took from conference season, adding that:
"All three leaders have identified the same portion of the electorate that will bring them victory in 2015. Call them suspicious strivers, alarm clock Britons, blue collar Tories or the squeezed middle, they are the only people to whom Britain's leaders seem to want to talk.
"The Tories still believe...they are closer to the beating heart of the strivers. Their focus group people sometimes hold up cards asking the public what image most represents Labour. Not long ago, the answer was a fat man sitting on a sofa at home watching TV – the classic welfare scrounger. It may be cruel, and unfair, but it shows Miliband still has some striving to do."
Just how a centrist Conservative election strategy might look is given more colour by Tim Montgomerie on ConservativeHome today. The 40/40 strategy aims at a small majority achieved by holding 40 marginals and winning 40 more. The Conservative effort relies on taking advantage of Mr Cameron’s strong personal polling and fighting a positive campaign from the centre - Lib Dem target seats will be won with "lovebombing", apparently. Mr Montgomerie adds:
"The NHYes campaign is being relaunched to restore public trust among what Con HQ calls the ‘in-play centre’. The NHS, green credentials at a local level* and, above all else, action on the cost of living are seen to be central to winning over this group. Last week's announcement on freezing council tax and capping rail fares were the latest acknowledgments of this."
PARENTS TO SHARE MATERNITY LEAVE
New fathers will be able to claim time off work and benefits should the mother return to work under changes to be announced by David Cameron and Nick Clegg later this month, the Telegraph report. The introduction of the new law will be delayed until October 2015, thanks to a Cabinet disagreement over the scheme’s impact on small businesses. We add:
"The system of maternity allowance will be renamed “flexible parental leave” to make it clear that both mothers and fathers are entitled to the state support.
"To address fears from women’s charities, mothers will still receive the assistance automatically unless they apply to transfer it to their partners. It is understood that mothers will only be required to take the first fortnight of leave after giving birth, for health reasons, after which fathers can take the paid time off work."
The move is one of a package of joint initiatives aiming to show that the Coalition parties can work well together following a public display of Lib Dem disquiet at conference. Two things to watch. Firstly the IT budget devoted to creating software to implement the scheme - only £22m at present. Secondly, the reaction of those on the Conservative benches. One MP has already been quoted as saying the proposal is "crazy", adding:
"The last thing businesses, particularly small businesses, should be saddled with at the moment is yet another round of regulation and uncertainty. They should just be left to get on with building their companies and helping get the economy going."
IDS TAKES ON ALL COMERS
Combative fellow that he is, Iain Duncan Smith is embroiled in two separate battles today. The first is with the Brussels bureaucratic machine, as the Telegraph reports. Europe wants Britain to drop its "habitual resident test", which is used to determine whether benefits claimants from other countries have actually been living in Britain and paying taxes prior to paying them benefits. IDS believes this will cost the country an additional £155m in benefits each year. Sources suggest the talks are gridlocked.
IDS’s other battle is with the rest of the Cabinet over marriage benefits, according to the Mail. The Work and Pensions Secretary is rumoured to be demanding the introduction of a tax incentive for married couples in the next budget, fearing that any later move would be dismissed as tokenism. Mr Duncan Smith’s chances of success appear limited, however. The Lib Dems are opposed, and the last time that the Tory manifesto pledge was seen in public, it was worth only £150 over the course of a year.
CIVIL SERVANT APOLOGISES TO GREENING
Both the Times (£) and the Guardian report that Philip Rutnam, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport, has apologised to Justine Greening in the wake of the West Coast mainline fiasco. The gesture is said to be a sign of the level of contrition felt by civil servants, aware of the impact the department’s blunders may have had on Miss Greening’s career. The Guardian adds that the former Transport Secretary has let her displeasure be known around Whitehall:
"She is particularly angry because she summoned officials to give an explanation after Virgin's complaint over the decision to strip it of the west coast mainline and award the franchise instead to FirstGroup. Officials initially told Greening they were confident the assessment process was reliable. However, when she asked them to double-check, civil servants reported they had identified one error, but said they were confident it would not have changed the outcome."
AN INCENDIARY ROW
The Guardian reports that George Osborne and Ed Davey have locked horns after the Lib Dem Energy Secretary forced through plans for a giant incineration plant in the Chancellor’s Cheshire constituency. Mr Osborne was the first to sign the 25,000 name petition against the scheme. The Chancellor is described as “disappointed” by the move. Fuming, more like.
COUNCILS SCUPPER HOME EXTENSION PLAN
The Prime Minister’s plan to build for victory has run into a significant obstacle in the form of the Local Government Association. The body has just voted to refuse to acknowledge planning exemption extensions. TheMail splashes on the news, adding that Tory-run councils in Lincolnshire and Richmond have already disregarded Number 10’s edict.
CLARKE TO SELL COALS TO NEWCASTLE NHS TO CHINA
Ken Clarke is heading to China where he will seek to sell the expertise of the NHS, the FT (£) reports. It is hoped that Mr Clarke will act as a trade "rocket booster", taking advantage of Chinese interest in consultancy, IT, medical equipment, training and pharmaceutical advice. If everything goes well, Health Minister Jeremy Hunt will visit China. His mind is clearly already on the job. As the FT reports:
"Mr Hunt has jokingly drawn parallels between the NHS and Chinese institutions – telling Conservatives the health service was ‘the fifth largest organisation in the world: smaller than the Red Army but bigger than the Indian Railways’."
16-YEAR-OLD VOTERS: A PRECEDENT SET?
The constitutional implications of handing 16-year-olds the vote in Scotland prompt the Telegraph to label the decision "unwise" in its leader column this morning. We add:
"It is only recently that Parliament prohibited 16-year-olds from buying tobacco, a law supported by the very people who now want to extend the franchise. If you can vote, why can’t you smoke?
"Once the principle is conceded, it will be impossible to argue with any credibility that the age barrier should not also be lowered for future contests, whether local or national – or, indeed, for a referendum on EU membership. It will also bring party politics into the classroom."
The Independent, on the other hand, is enthusiastic. It quotes Willie Sullivan, Scottish director of the Electoral Reform Society, who believes that not allowing 16-year-olds to vote in subsequent elections would make this gesture a "grubby political deal".
OWEN PATERSON "GUNG-HO"
There’s no reprieve for badgers in this morning’s Guardian profile of Owen Paterson. Conference season opposition is dismissed as "sad sentimentality". The paper’s main gripe is that Mr Paterson has been insufficiently alarmed about global warming. Even so, the paper carries a ringing endorsement from Tory moderniser Philip Blond who tells them that "there has been a rush to judgment on Owen that has not been merited". A Defra insider is more cagey:
"He listens and is bright, so he's easy to brief, but is more gung-ho than his predecessor. The badger cull is his first huge test: when political dogma is confronted by scientific fact and public opinion, that means tough times ahead."
TWEETS AND TWITS
Tom Harris takes a rather forceful view of the power of the press:
@TomHarrisMP : "When the Telegraph demands the sacking of the Tory Chief Whip, you know what? The Tory Chief Whip's going to be sacked."
Sun / YouGov: Con 35%, Lab 42%, Lib Dem 8%, UKIP 7%
In The Telegraph
Telegraph View - Andrew Mitchell must step down
Fraser Nelson - David Cameron’s toffs must convince the plebs they’re on their side
Jeremy Warner - Why would Scotland turn itself into Greece?
Harry Mount - The First World War: the war that changed us all
Best of the rest
Philip Collins in The Times (£) - Big speeches are shrinking with our politics
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - Voting at 16? I was smuggling Kit Kats into my school locker at that age. I'd rather it was 36!
Simon Jenkins in The Guardian - Gove's centralism is not so much socialist as Soviet
Philip Stephens in then FT (£) - High-stakes choices for China’s leaders
Today: Andrew Mitchell meets with members of the Police Federation.
08:00 am: Protests will be held at railway stations across the country by the TUC, including at London Euston, in favour of rail renationalisation.
12:00 am: Nick Clegg taking questions on BBC Radio 5 Live Shelagh Fogarty show. BBC Five Live