Thursday, 31 January 2013

Clarke defends pro-EU campaign..

BREAKING NEWS: Ken Clarke has managed the neat trick of defending a referendum to which he was opposed and his own stance on Europe in an interview with the Today Programme:
"The time has come to put the arguments to the British people again. The Prime Minister thinks [a referendum] is the only way...people demand referendums because they know there is a majority against them in Parliament.
"I am resigned to fate which is becoming a minority in today's activist world...Like most responsible leaders [David Cameron] believes that staying in the European Union is absolutely necessary...most people [in Europe] think it does need reform. We need to get the economic benefits and the political benefits...The Conservative Party has always been pro-European in my lifetime and the majority of the party want to stay in Europe."
Good morning. Defence spending will rise again after the next general election, David Cameron has pledged. Forces chiefs, incredulous at having the Mali adventure foisted on them as the army is being cut in size and increasing its reliance on reservists, will receive above inflation rises from 2015 onwards. As Con Coughlin points out on our comment pages, that is just as well because Dave's global commitments make him increasingly dependent on Britain's special forces. In keeping with the more realistic appraisal of the link between forces funding and forces capacity is the report in today's Guardian that the Treasury has signed off the funds necessary for new Trident submarines ahead of an eventual Commons vote. The reversal will benefit serving soldiers only,our report today that the war pension awarded to veterans, widows and their families will rise by less than the state pension this year indicates that the military is still far from having the special status it enjoys in American politics.
Dave's battle against the "existential threat" he has discovered in North Africa took him to Algiers yesterday where he committed to a "joint security partnership" between the nations, battling Islamist terrorism in the region. So far, so Tony, but as the seeds of a long-term engagement are sewn, the Mail leader writer's question "is Timbuktu really any of our business?" resonates. Meanwhile, ongoing questions over the lengths which the security services are going in order to protect us, and the secrecy which shrouds them, also gives cause for concern, as Peter Oborne argues.
At a national level, there's a problem too. The jam tomorrow approach can only work for so long, particularly when the diet of gruel today is such a slog. We now have defence spending rises, a large portion of the welfare spending cuts, the EU renegotiation process, and much of the rest of the red meat from the Tory half of the Coalition coming after the next election. But troops can't march of empty stomachs. Perhaps, as I blogged yesterday, it's time to give them something to chew on in the next budget.
Finally, there's the Cabinet dimension. How will George Osborne take to having military spending ring-fenced by the Prime Minister? Moreover, if reductions at the MoD are now off-limits, does this put the other ring-fenced departments into play? With health, DfID (which can't spend it's money fast enough) and schools all now ring-fenced, other departments will await budget decisions with trepidation. Has Dave just stolen George's budget? 
Ken Clarke keeps this under his hat, but he's actually quite opposed to the idea of Britain leaving the EU. He has warned that Britain would make a "fatal mistake" if voters chose to leave the EU. Speaking on stage with Peter Mandelson and Douglas Alexander, Mr Clarke added that Eurosceptics had "got away with murder with the lies and false propaganda they have poured out about the European Union," theGuardian reports. Insubordination, certainly, but Mr Clarke's pedigree, appearing on stage with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in 1999 to oppose William Hague's Eurosceptic message, would not have come as a surprise to at least one of his Cabinet colleagues. The Whips think Dave may lose 40% of MPs, around 120. If it's that few, nobody will be as delighted as the Prime Minister.
Opposition to Coalition plans to introduce homosexual marriage is well contained in the Cabinet, the Mail reports. Iain Duncan Smith is expected to abstain rather than vote against the move, while both Christ Grayling and Baroness Warsi will vote with the Government, despite personal reservations. Owen Paterson is the Bill's most implacable foe, but support around the Cabinet table is increasingly timorous. Given that the Bill will pass on the back of Liberal Democrat and Labour support, what remains to be seen is whether Mr Cameron can keep at least half of his party onside.
Not every Whitehall department feels like it is enduring death by a thousand cuts. The all-party international development select committee have found that officials at DFiD rushed to spend £500m of public money in 2011 in order to meet the Coalitions spending demands.We report that officials found their extra funds "challenging" to disperse. "Civil servant morale low thanks to cuts" has become something of a commonplace in recent years. "Civil service morale low thanks to excessive funding" is a new one.
Three in four councils will reduce the council tax benefit available to lower income households as a result of a 10pc cut from central government to the subsidy budget, the Independent reports. In the Mail, there's news that the married couples allowance will not be introduced this year. The Chancellor believes that introducing it for the 2014/15 financial year would keep it fresh in the minds of voters for the coming election. Given the size of the proposed tax allowance transfer system - reputed to be £12.50 per month, per couple, at the basic rate - it will not make a material difference, but even so, backbench gripes over delaying a manifesto commitment at the same time as a non-manifesto commitment in gay marriage is fast-tracked are becoming no easier to answer.
The BBC is full of "gullible" journalists prepared to give "unquestioning" regurgitation of the Labour view, acting like an "80s tribute band" for the party, according to Eric Pickles. The Mail reports that the Communities Secretary used his speech to the New Local Government Network yesterday to add that Labour had taken a "Miss Havisham approach" to opposition, reliant on past glories in the place of new ideas. Clearly he hasn't heard about predistribution.
The shenanigans over boundary reform left Quentin Letts more disgusted than at any other point in his political career, he writes today. In fact, politics has disillusioned Ed Miliband so much that he begins a promising career as an op-ed writer with this effort in the Sun on youth unemployment today, pledging to take on an apprentice when he storms Number 10. It's not just the soul. Politics is also bad for growth, apparently. An LSE study reported in the FT (£), found that a "costly cocktail of political procrastination, institutional churn and poor decision making" hampered GDP.
Liam Fox is being lined up to replace Sir George Young as Conservative Chief Whip, according to the Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle. The column suggests that in recompense, Sir George's membership of the Carlton Club could be extended indefinitely. Dr Fox's continued non-membership of the Conservative leadership challengers' club is also, presumably, a condition of the move.
The Mail reports that listening to a Grant Shapps presentation on reaching out to ethnic minority voters, one Tory minister urged him to hurry up as "we don’t want to be sitting around the Cabinet table having this conversation in three years’ time." Not a problem, interjected George Osborne, "in three years’ time we will be sitting around the shadow cabinet table." A good joke, but perhaps not one you want your chief election strategist to be telling.
Tonight's Question Time comes from Lancaster. The panel will be  Sayeeda Warsi, Alan Johnson, the comedian Dom Joly, the Guardian’s Zoe Williams and James Delingpole.
Continuing an occasional series called "Mike Weir's informative film reviews":

@mikeweirsnp: "Saw Django Unchained. Great film but, unsurprisingly, not for the squeamish."


In the Telegraph

Peter Oborne - We must shine a light on the dark corners of our secret state
Telegraph View - There's no need for the police to fear new talent

Best of the rest

Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - I've never felt such disgust for our political class

TODAY: European Union Foreign Affairs Council, attended by Foreign Secretary William Hague in Brussels.  Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speech on child poverty.
09:45 am: Commons Public Accounts Committee takes evidence on tax avoidance. Witnesses: Jane McCormick, UK head of tax, KPMG; Bill Dodwell, head of tax policy, Deloitte LLP; Kevin Nicholson, head of tax, PWC; and John Dixon, head of tax, Ernst and Young. Committee Room 15, House of Commons.
10:00 am: Former Press Association political editor Chris Moncrieff and Independent columnist Steve Richards give evidence to Commons Public Administration Committee on government reshuffles. Wilson Room, Portcullis House.