Good morning. Are things looking up for David Cameron? Labour's lead is noticeably reduced in polls out today, sufficiently to put the Tories within touching reach (YouGov in the Sun 9pts, ICM in the Guardian 5pts). Peter Kellner in his useful note yesterday highlighted too that the PM's approval rating has improved considerably - still negative, but better than the lows of last spring. Polls also suggest the public is coming round to Mr Cameron's pro-EU view. No10 have hoped that the new year would bring an up-turn in Mr Cameron's fortunes. They believe he put the omnishambles behind him through the autumn, and with a succession of solid policy announcements under his belt, a personal narrative of global race+aspiration set out in his conference speech, and an economic policy that makes Labour's look incredible, the conditions are in place for an electoral recovery. For my money the case for optimism is unproven. From Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to Tory plots (I was briefed on two last night, one for a would-be leader with no supporters, another by supporters of an elusive, mystery candidate), Mr Cameron has his work cut out for him.
The question is what damage Mr Cameron will sustain leading his troops in pursuit of his conviction call over EU renegotiation. Eric Pickles is reported in today's Telegraph to have appealed for parliamentary party unity, a sign that the Prime Minister is feeling the heat. Much of this pressure is self-applied. Tantric policy making making is all well and good, but what if the end isn't explosive enough to justify the wait? This is now Number 10's biggest worry, according to the FT (£). The Times (£) reports that pro-European Tories are willing to risk a referendum, but how will the anti-Europe faction feel when it becomes clear that their leader will campaign to stay in? Even Nick Clegg is expected to refrain from wading into the post-speech mire, calculating that the Tories have both sides of the argument covered themselves, according to the FT.
A decision on Europe will improve Dave's standing, you sense. Rachel Sylvester argues in this morning's Times (£) that he has so far looked "dithery, partisan, insular, remote and afraid" on the topic. But how much of that is his fault? If the Tories could stop bickering for a moment, they might hear something they like, I argue in my Telegraph column:
"Precisely because he is good and privileged and – as he famously told one interviewer – thinks he can do the job quite well, his failure to give a clear account of himself is no one’s fault but his own. Yet he has recorded achievements to be proud of. He now needs to persuade his party that he is worth fighting for. It’s not complicated, he said last year: what will get the nation through difficult times is hard work. His in particular."THE KING IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE FIRST BORN CHILD OF EITHER GENDER
"We have seen under both this Government and the last that tinkering with the constitution can have significant unintended consequences. The changes envisaged may be both rational and overdue, but that is no reason why they should not be subjected to the most painstaking parliamentary examination."
TROOPS TO MALI
Britain will send ground troops to Mali, although in their tens, rather than their thousands. The National Security Council meets today and the Sun reports that it may be fractious. Mr Cameron is going against the wishes of defence chiefs. Speaking in the Commons yesterday, the Prime Minister promised to "dismantle" terror cells in northern Mali. Sound familiar? We knew he wanted to be the "heir to Blair", but as Janan Ganesh of the FT (£) points out, few thought their legacies would be most similar in foreign policy.
Dave's spokesman leapt to the defence of the Cabinet Secretary yesterday agreeing that he had done a "good job" and that the Prime Minister had commissioned "the right review at the right time", theTelegraph reports. This is something of a singular view. The Public Administration Committee's report, released yesterday, found that Sir Jeremy would have suffered a deficiency of time and "the necessary skills" to investigate the allegations, we add. The Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle smells a rat, accusing the committee's chairman, Bernard Jenkin, of using the report to vent his frustration with Dave's failure to promote him to a role in the MoD. On the plus side he does, apparently, possess the "longest eyelashes in the House", so that's alright.
Stephen Timms has been rebuked by Ed Miliband after appearing to commit Labour to inflationary rises in working age benefit levels, theMail reports. Speaking as the Commons debated Iain Duncan Smith's benefit uprating Bill, Mr Timms told the chamber that "uprating should be in line with inflation, as it always was in the past". Last night the party was backtracking from what appeared to be a firm commitment on future policy, arguing Mr Timms' comments applied only to the here and now. The problem is, he left no wriggle room for that. The alternative position - that limited increases in benefits is morally wicked now but possibly desirable in the next parliament - would not have survived five minutes of scrutiny. Mr Miliband may want to look at his policy, not his employment shadow.
Developers will be able to convert offices into flats without council permission under new plans to be announced by Nick Boles. The FT (£) reports that the combination of commercial vacancy rates of up to 21pc in some regions and a shortage of housing stock prompted the move, although the City of London will be exempted to preserve its commercial character.
ABBOTT TO ATTACK SEXUALISED SOCIETY
Britain's "anything goes" sexual culture will come under attack in Diane Abbott's speech to the Fabian Society Women's Network today. Society is too sexualised, the result of market forces, she will argue. The answer? Earlier sex education and child friendly computers, the Guardianreports. Diane Abbott vs Claire Perry - the battle to be the 21st century's Mary Whitehouse is on.
SNOW TIME FOR A DAY OFF
With 5,000 schools closed yesterday owing to snow and ice, the Times(£) reports that Michael Gove has encouraged more to open today, insisting that pupil absences will not lead to schools being penalised. No duvet day? Hardly the way to win hearts and minds, Mr Gove.
Ladies! Wondering if he's the one for you? Chris Heaton-Harris has some advice:
@chhcalling: "Cracking Rita Rudner quip: 'Men with pierced ears are better prepared for marriage - they've experienced pain & bought jewellery.'"
Sun / YouGov: Con 33%, Lab 42%, Lib Dem 10%, Ukip 10%
In the Telegraph
Benedict Brogan - Cameron's message is Tory, but his enemies have drowned it out
Telegraph View - An unseemly rush to alter the succession
Rachel Sylvester in The Times (£) - David Cameron: Algeria head good - Europe head bad
Steve Richards in The Independent - As Cameron moves onto dangerous terrain, he's lucky to have a foreign secretary with experience but no political ambitionDominic Lawson in The Independent - Now that's what I call a special relationship: why the alliance between Germany and France is so strong
Polly Toynbee in The Guardian - These Tory backbenchers will bang on until they hit self-destructTHE AGENDA
TODAY: Second reading and committee stage of Succession to the Crown Bill.
Transport Minister Simon Burns to launch consultation on proposals on airport night noise.
09:30 am: Cabinet. 10 Downing Street.
09:30 am: ONS figures on public sector finances December 2012.
12:30 pm: Subway sandwich shop franchisees deliver 150,000-signature petition demanding removal of VAT from toasted sandwiches. Petition to be handed in by a franchisee called David Cameron. 10 Downing Street.