Monday, 25 February 2013

Clegg has 'nothing to hide'..

BREAKING NEWS: George Osborne is awaiting the verdict of the markets on Fiday's Moody's downgrade. Sterling traded sharply lower against both euro and dollar overnight, although it has been staging a minor recovery. A pound now buys €1.145 and $1.515. You can follow our live coverage of the money markets here.
Meanwhile, Tim Farron has been on the Today programme where he has said that he heard "no specifics" until last Wednesday. He had heard a "general rumour...but not specific complaints" prior to that. "We screwed this up as a job is to find out what happened and ensure those women get justice," he added, stressing that Lord Rennard denies all allegations of wrongdoing. Speaking on BBC Radio Solent earlier, Nick Clegg said that he was "personally hurt" by accusations that he knew something and covered it up. "I've nothing to hide," he added.
Good Morning. Nick Clegg is in real trouble over his concession that he knew of "indirect and non-specific" claims of alleged impropriety by Lord Rennard in 2008 (read our report here). His statement last night raised as many questions as it answered, and Cathy Newman has fisked it thoroughly on her Channel 4 blog, pointing out the "Kafkaesque" internal dynamics of party organisation which appeared to militate against a proper investigation of the allegations. The Mail carries fresh accusations this morning. It reports that a gathering of party officials in a Peterborough hotel in 2004 was interrupted by a tearful female aide who claimed that Lord Rennard had attempted to fondle her in his room. Despite the "Peterborough incident" allegedly gaining notoriety in the party, no investigation was opened at the time. The investigation now may be a criminal one - Labour MP John Mann is writing to Scotland Yard urging the opening of a formal investigation.
The press has the knives out for all involved. The Independent's profile of Lord Rennard calls him a "Rasputin figure" who was the  "commanding - and feared" man at the heart of the Lib Dem election machine. The Mail, on the other hand calls out Mr Clegg for "weasal words". Given that the Eastleigh by-election is this Thursday, you would anticipate the Lib Dem's fragile lead evaporating further, although one party activist told aTimes (£) reporter that "if Chris Huhne lying doesn't derail us, neither will Rennard". Maybe so, but as Gaby Hinsliff writes in the Guardian, for Nick Clegg, it's what you don't know that can hurt you:
"Politics has long had a culture of deniability, whereby leaders' offices are carefully shielded from the dirtier aspects of the business on the grounds that what they don't know they can't be asked about: it would be naive to think that will ever die. But as this affair is now proving, what you don't know – or only half-knew – can still get you into trouble if you really should have known."
Embarrassing, but not fatal seems to be the gist of Fleet Street's reaction to Friday night's Moody's downgrade. The timing helped George - the evening before a weekend with parliament on a short recess in any case meaning its Westminster impact was muted. The FT's leader describes the debacle as a "self-inflicted embarrassment", echoing the Mail's Alex Brummer whose line is that the Chancellor has been "hoist by his own petard...but this is no disaster". Certainly the choice of ratings agency opinions as a barometer to success always made Mr Osborne something of a hostage to fortune, but as Tim Montgomerie points out in the Times(£), not only is the Chancellor going nowhere, but he's not for shifting on strategy either. In fact, as Jeremy Warner argues writing for us, it may even firm his mind further to stay the course:
"In a sense, loss of the triple-A only further underlines just how little room the Chancellor has in next month's Budget for any easing of the broad outline of fiscal consolidation."
As if George didn't have enough on his plate, the Cabinet is becoming increasingly unruly when it comes to spending cuts. The Mirror reports that Theresa May is leading a group which includes Philip Hammond and Chris Grayling in resisting further cuts to departments which have already borne the brunt. The self-styled National Union of Ministers (first referenced in James Forsyth's Sunday Mail piece) have the support of Vince, who is already publicly calling for an end to the axe work. Mrs May, in particular, has been spending a lot of time talking to backbenchers recently. If she's willing to take on the Chancellor, she must suspect the support is there.
Michael Ashcroft's decision to stop funding the Tories is a major blow. As the Mail reports, his problem with the party is that of many on its traditional wing - "Lord Ashcroft is still a Tory but, he wonders, is Cameron?" The peer has donated £10m to the party but was ignored by the leadership over gay marriage and the appointment of Lynton Crosby. There's no cash for influence in the modern Tories, that's for sure.
The Tory civil war has also claimed a victim closer to home for Dave. The chairwoman of his local Conservative branch in Chipping Norton has resigned over the issue. Cicely Maunder has quit as have a number of the executive committee, a move which echoes the losses sustained by dozens of constituency associations in England, as Dave is frequently reminded by his backbenchers. CCHQ is proud of the party's rapidly improving digital platform, but the Tory "ground game" is in disarray given the number of desertions. Like Lord Ashcroft, they wonder whether the party is as conservative as they are, a point taken up by Roger Scruton in the most recent edition of Prospect:
"What the 'modernisation wing' of the Tory party is hoping for—a new kind of conservatism which conserves nothing, changes everything, and is guided by the very same rhetoric of equality and human rights that shapes the left-liberal agenda. If that is where we are, then conservatism is dead."
And the winner will be...not Labour. Despite Ken Clarke's pessimism, the Mayor of London is highly complimentary about Maria Hutchings in his column for us, noting that he would rather her than "some utterly Janus-faced and hypocritical Lib Dem". He adds that "Labour’s failure to make an impact is a biting comment on Ed Miliband, and his vacuous prospectus for the people of this country." It's a reasonable point. The implied odds of a Labour victory sit at around 0.8pc taking the bookmakers at face value, with Mike Smithson reporting that the Tories are hardening with the Lib Dems slipping. Both the poll calling Eastleigh for the Lib Dems and that for the Conservatives put Ed M's troops nowhere. If ever Labour were going to make an in-road in the South, it should have been here. They haven't, and that should worry them.
Today sees the Defamation Act undergo its third reading in the Lords. With Labour wrecking amendments still in play, a last minute deal over a Royal Charter looks likely to be the only circumstance under which the Commons will see it back for a third time. Harriet Harman said on Marr yesterday that a deal was still possible but that Dave needed to "man up" and make its provisions tougher.
One additional person is claiming disability living allowance every 10 minutes, the Sun reports, up 4,000 a month from the same period last year. From April, the DLA will be scrapped in favour of PIP - the personal independence plan - which is anticipated to be much more exacting in its disability testing. A cynic might think the two facts related.
The money markets don't want to be caught holding Sterling at present, but at least it still has some fans north of the border. The FT (£) reports that a discussion paper published in early March by British ministers would endorse the use of Sterling by an independent Scotland, but would also enforce a deficit cap, policed by the Bank of England. Drawing the SNP into a fight over the conditionality of continuing to use Sterling is part of the Whitehall plan to bury them in detail - and Holyrood is unlikely to accept the conditions without comment.  After all, you'd never find the Westminster government playing fast and loose with deficit targets.
Over Offa's Dyke, the Independent reports that Wales may gain tax variation powers similar to those enjoyed by Scotland, raising the prospect of an influx of English employees seeking tax breaks. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew Davies is expected to announce tomorrow that he would use the power to cut taxes at the 40pc rate,targeting the squeezed middle. Of course, the move may backfire. The Cardiff government is a coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru, and like markets, taxes may go up as well as down.
Given the hysteria rapidly developing on both sides - British fears of a migrant flood, the Romanian ambassador envisaging roaming gangs of racist hoodlums hunting down his countrymen - Victor Ponta, the Romanian premier has made a game effort to calm tensions with an op-ed in this morning's Times (£). There will be no invasion, Romanians prefer Latin nations, the country is doing well with its fiscal adjustment, and Prince Charles likes it there, he argues. Well that's alright then. Panic over.   
Want the opportunity to own a piece of contemporary British political history? The bike made famous by plebgate is going under the hammer in a charity auction, the Times (£) reports. Since starring in Andrew Mitchell's contretemps with police officers at the entrance to Downing Street, Mr Mitchell's bike has been targeted by theives and tourists wanting a photo with it.

Tom Harris takes a swipe at Nicks:

@TomHarrisMP: "Clegg to claim he only found out 'a few hours ago' that he is, in fact, in coalition with the Tories." 


In the Telegraph

Boris Johnson - One thing's clear about Eastleigh: it'll be a wretched day for Labour
Peter Foster and Jon Swaine - Obama's new head boy
Best of the rest

Tim Montgomerie in The Times (£) - The Chancellor's not for turning - or sacking
Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun - Coalition facing a beastly Eastleigh

TODAY: Defamation Bill third reading. The Defamation Bill, which has been amended to contain measures aimed at implementing Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations, will have its third reading vote in the House of Lords.
09:30 am: British Bankers' Association (BBA) releases its latest high street banking report.
03:45 pm: Chancellor George Osborne to give evidence to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.
06:00 pm: Launch of report When Maternity Doesn't Matter: dispersing pregnant women seeking asylum. The report is published by Maternity Action and the Refugee Council. The launch is hosted by Sarah Teather MP, Richard Fuller MP and Fiona Mactaggart MP. Macmillan room, Portcullis House.