Thursday, 4 October 2012

West coast main line fiasco could cost £300m..

The biggest overnight news is Mitt Romney's thumping success in the first television debate. You can catch up with all the news and analysis in our debate special here.

Back in Blighty, attention is still focused on the fall-out from the rail franchise fiasco. The central debate is around who to blame. Three civil servants have been suspended but it is noticeable that focus is shifting to the ministers who oversaw the process. Sir Richard Branson points the finger at Justine Greening, and the Times (£) has picked up the theme. The International Development Secretary is in north Kenya, which seems a good place to be for lying low. But I gather attention is zeroing in on Theresa Villiers as the minister who may have had greater oversight and responsibility. There is also a discussion emerging about the effect Government shifts in policy on franchises, and austerity cuts to the Department for Transport, may have had. No10, I suspect, will hold to the view that it all boils down to an error by officials and it is therefore right that careers are affected. 

The cost of the debacle could reach £300m according to this morning’sTimes (£) front page. Even more damagingly, the paper also reports that Justine Greening was told of “small but non-critical errors” shortly before she was reshuffled out of the department. Ms Greening ordered an investigation, but had left by the time it reported. Downing Street is keen to lay the blame on senior civil servants, claiming that ministers cannot be expected to drill into the minutiae of every deal. The Telegraph reports Government sources saying that “heads will definitely roll in the department.” At the same time, as the Guardian point out, the sums involved in other projects such as HS2 will now also need revisiting. 

In any case, the Government’s reputation for competence has been dealt a further blow. The Mirror’s leader captures the general tone with its headline “duffers hit the buffers”. The Telegraph’s leader is also scathing about a scandal which has added to sense of dark clouds accumulating ahead of Tory conference:

“Ed Miliband won the biggest cheer during his party conference speech when he berated the Coalition for its incompetence. A few hours later, as if on cue, the Department for Transport delivered a masterclass in bungling. It announced – in a statement sneaked out in the middle of the night – that the franchising process for the West Coast Main Line (WCML) would have to be re-run because of ‘flaws’. Specifically, mistakes were made in pricing in inflation and passenger projections when assessing the competing bids – surely an elementary error. 

“The only consolation to be drawn from this fiasco is that the franchise had not changed hands before the flaws were exposed. And credit for that goes not to politicians or civil servants, but to Virgin and its justifiable anger over a deal that did not add up.”


Mr Miliband wakes to a more conservative reception in this morning’s papers. The Milimania which the FT (£) claims to detect has subsided somewhat. Ed took part in a Q&A session yesterday, and as the Mailreports, he pledged to march with the TUC on October 20th, apparently undermining his One Nation campaign only a day in.

Commentators are also rather more sober in their assessment of his speech on Tuesday. In the Mail, Stephen Glover calls Mr Miliband, “the most divisive Labour leader for decades”. Camilla Cavendish in the Times(£) adds that:

“Mr Miliband’s speech was an attempt to revitalise faith in politics, and to explain his faith that politics can achieve a better society. On me, however, he had the opposite effect. ‘Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, U-turning, pledge-breaking, make-it-up-as-we-go-along, back-of-the-envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this Government?’ he asked, raising a huge cheer. Yes, I couldn’t help thinking: the last one.”

At the same time, a row has blown up over Mili’s millions. As we report, Mr Miliband has been evading questions about his personal wealth. The Conservatives believe that Mr Miliband qualifies as a millionaire if his property is taken into account, offering them another attack line as they try to manage Mr Miliband’s theft of one of the party’s big ideas. 

Never mind, Ed, the Guardian still loves you. Martin Kettle writes this morning that Mr Miliband is the true heir to Blair:

“The Labour party always has to transcend old failed labourism if it is to win and govern. Blair's New Labour and Miliband's one-nation Labour are different attempts to reach out to voters who turned away from Old Labour. Blair's attempt was then. It was extremely successful. Miliband's is now. Its prospects are more fragile. They have more in common than those whose politics are stuck in the past can allow.”

For all the impact in the press, what was the impact of Ed’s speech on the high street? A boost, according to the Sun, but his ratings are still low. Although Mr Miliband has gained six points in polling as 31 per cent now see him as future Prime Minister (the Mirror says 30 per cent of people are now more likely to vote Labour). Good news for Mr Miliband, but the 47 per cent who can’t imagine him at the helm are still a significant problem.


Better news for Ed is that his brother could soon be back on board. David Miliband may lead his brother’s election campaign, according to theIndependent. An insider told the paper:

"Offering David the post of election co-ordinator is under discussion. It's the most likely role if he decides to come back. Ed has made clear the door is always open.”

The only problem? The other Ed. Tom Watson, a key ally of Mr Balls, is currently the campaign manager, and any attempt to displace him could only exacerbate problems between the pair. 

In the meantime, the paper also reports that a number of old hands could be making a return, including Alistair Darling, who is described as “our Ken Clarke” by a Labour insider. Lord Mandelson is also apparently in the frame for a comeback while former GMTV presenter Gloria De Piero has impressed Ed with her work on disillusionment with politics.


The national identity card scheme is back. Only this time the cards are virtual. “What could possibly go wrong?” asks the Independent which splashes on the story. According to the paper, the scheme:

“Will allow people to use their mobile phones and social media profiles as official identification documents for accessing public services.

“People wishing to apply for services ranging from tax credits to fishing licences and passports will be asked to choose from a list of familiar online log-ins, including those they already use on social media sites, banks, and large retailers such as supermarkets, to prove their identity.”

It sounds like a wonderful idea. After all, it isn’t as though the civil service has a record of delivering major IT projects late and over-budget, before popping everybody’s details into the post and losing them...


The apparent confusion over policy towards universal benefits for wealthy pensioners continues this morning. A day after Mr Miliband was reported to have “slapped down” Liam Byrne over remarks justifying means testing for some elderly benefits, the Guardian reports that the move is now considered key to One Nation Labour’s philosophy. The paper reports that cuts to the winter fuel allowance for wealthy pensioners would be “symbolic” of the party’s intentions. Make your mind up, chaps. 


The NHS has had a lower profile than usual this conference season. Ed Miliband’s One Nation focus has seen his party concentrate on traditionally Conservative themes such as the strength of the Union and tougher policing prior to yesterday. That may change now with both sides appearing to move in opposite directions yesterday.

At Labour conference, Andy Burnham accused the Coalition of the “biggest ever act of NHS privatisation”, according to the Guardian. Almost 400 contracts worth around £262m will be signed this week, a situation which Mr Burnham said he would reverse this plan by reviving a 2009 bill which would see NHS organisations designated as the prefered providers of care. 

On the Conservative side, Jeremy Hunt failed to give any reassurances when pushed over NHS funding in the next parliament. In an interview with the Spectator which has been taken to signify the eventual end of healths protected status in spending reviews Mr Hunt said:

“I don’t think it’s possible to make a prediction because there is so much uncertainty in the economic outlook and no one knows what is going to happen with the eurozone.”


The latest issue of the Spectator claims that Craig Oliver, the PM’s head of communications will be gone by Christmas. Don’t bank on it. I was told last night that the story is categorically untrue - Mr Cameron has no plans to replace his communications director. The rumours started, I suspect, when someone around the Prime Minister began taking soundings among various media figures in the hope that a volunteer might be found who could be drawn to Mr Cameron's attention.


Thrasher has pulled out of the Conservative party conference.  Not only is it unusual for a senior politician to be absent from conference but, with a seat in Sutton Coldfield, Mr Mitchell is one of few Tory MPs representing Birmingham, where the conference will be held. 

Last night a friend told the Telegraph: “The last thing he wants to be is a distraction. It was his decision.” 

I’m afraid that bridge may have been crossed some time ago...


The FT (£) reports that George Osborne will not be able to rely on improving indicators when he makes his Autumn Statement in December. Economists working from services data believe that growth will be somewhere between 0.1 and 0.2 per cent in the third quarter. It’s growth, but it isn’t enough.


And finally... The Labour love-in with the nineteenth century Conservative Party continues. First, Ed Miliband embraced Benjamin Disraeli. Now, Yvette Cooper has laid claim to another early Tory prime minister. As the Statesman reports, Sir Robert Peel has apparently inspired Ms Cooper’s approach to modern policing.

Given the apparent omniscience of Tory statesman from the previous century, you can understand why nobody thought to found the Labour Party until 1900.


You could be forgiven for thinking that Tom Harris has lost faith in Tories:

@TomHarrisMP: “BREAKING: Conservative Party loses out in bid to run drinking party in a brewery. G4S bid "far more robust". 

Surely the test of that will be at the post-conference events?


In The Telegraph

Peter Oborne - Now it’s David Cameron’s turn to display his one-nation credentials 

Jeremy Warner - UK is haring off down the wrong path on new nuclear power plants

David Heathcoat-Amory - How Britain can restore freedom to Europe 

Jemima Lewis - It’s time we talked sensibly about abortion

Best of the rest

Camilla Cavendish in the Times (£) - This is a crisis, not a time for teenage sneers 

Steve Richards in The Independent - Let's appoint a Transport minister with an interest in... transport

Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail - One nation? Hypocritical Red Ed is the most divisive Labour leader for decades

Martin Kettle in The Guardian - Ed Miliband and Tony Blair have more in common than those stuck in the past can allow 


Today: Labour party conference continues.

10:00 am: Vernon Coaker speech.

11:00 am: Hilary Benn speech.

11:00 am: Boris Johnson speech in London on airport capacity. The speech will form part of the Mayor's response to the Department for Transport's Draft Aviation Policy Framework consultation document. London's Living Room, City Hall.

11:40 am: Stephen Twigg speech.

12:00 pm: Harriet Harman speech.

12:00 pm: Bank of England interest rate decision.