Thursday, 28 February 2013

Danger for Coalition at Eastleigh..

Good morning. Voting is underway in Eastleigh . Polls close at 10pm, and we'll be live blogging from then until the result, expected around 2am tomorrow. The expectation is a narrow Lib Dem victory. But whatever the result, what happens next? 
 Two scenarios could lead to political turmoil and even the end of the Coalition: I know it's unlikely, but a Tory victory would plunge the Lib Dems into a leadership crisis that could finish Nick Clegg and put his partnership with David Cameron in doubt (though worth recalling that all Lib Dems voted for the Coalition). On that basis, Conservatives who want to end the Coalition should vote Tory. The other, more likely as we report today, has the Tories not only losing, but coming third behind Ukip. That would plunge Mr Cameron into another round of arguments about his future, and increase the chances of a move against him. David Davis' sally last night will be taken as ominous in No10. But even the most favoured outcome - a Lib Dem win with Tories second - brings dangers. Nick Clegg is steaming about the way the Rennard affair has been laid at his door. His friends suspect a Tory dirty tricks operation far worse than the personal attacks of the AV campaign. We have yet to understand the damage this business has done to Mr Clegg's relations with Dave, and to relations at the top of the Coalition more generally. I suspect it will prove to be considerable, with consequences for the work and durability of the Coalition.
Whatever the result in Eastleigh , Nick Clegg is still under real pressure as allegations of the mishandling of serious sexual harassment claims mount. The Spectator claims that Mr Clegg was also warned about the alleged activities of Mike Hancock after one of his constituents made a written complaint that went unanswered. As far as Lord Rennard go, not only did Mr Clegg know of the claims, he told the peer to "stop it now" as the Times (£) puts it. The paper says that Mr Clegg warned Lord Rennard four years ago over "inappropriate" behaviour. Mr Clegg himself changed tack yesterday and admitted that sexual harassment claims had contributed to Lord Rennard's resignation, muddying the waters still further, as we report. The ensuing confusion has led to Mr Clegg being dismissed as a "weasel" by the Mail which goes on to ponder at length just what it is with Liberals and sex scandals. Predictably, the headline event on Call Clegg was also scandal related. Cathy Newman AKA Cathy from Dulwich tried to clarify Mr Clegg's remarks on the reason that Lord Rennard left office. The result, as Michael Deacon puts it, "was sort of 'yes' and 'no' at the same time. It was 'yo' or 'nes'." Glad that's clear.
Some good news on GDP - the economy did grow last year, by all of 0.2pc. The upwards revision in the Q1 and Q3 figures takes the year into minor gain territory when it was previously thought to have been flat. It made little odds at PMQs where the downgrade was the topic of the day. While Ed Miliband largely failed to land a blow, something which ought to alarm the party's election strategists, Dave did commit himself to "going further and faster" to reduce the deficit. In reality, this means staying the course - the further and faster referred to the acceleration of cuts over the course of the parliament to 2015/16, something already well advertised. All eyes now turn to the Budget. In a muted meeting with about 80 backbenchers, fewer than last year, the Chancellor was told to offer cost of living tax cuts and asked to provide some guidance on a line to take this year, after last year's effort left MPs flummoxed. Did it register? "He's notionally in listening mode," one backbencher told theFT (£), "but in practice I don't think he will do much." With Labour's economic policy in its current state of confusion, perhaps he doesn't need to. Writing for us, Peter Oborne makes the case that Ed Balls can be an asset to Labour, but not as Shadow Chancellor:
"Mr Balls is now intellectually bankrupt. When he became shadow chancellor in January 2011, he landed in the job demanding massive deficit financing in order to confront the recession...As shadow chancellor, [he] has failed to sustain this interesting case. True, Labour from time to time demands that the pace of deficit reduction should be slower, or targeted in different areas. But Mr Balls has not seriously challenged the basic Coalition strategy. There has been no great collision of ideas. As a result he has nothing interesting to say, which is probably the reason he compensates with bombastic but ultimately meaningless Commons performances." 
The Coalition should learn from the Gordon Brown years and stop "try[ing] to announce your way from a crisis", Damian McBride told the public administration select committee yesterday. Trying to distract the press with something new risks seeing it "go off half cock", he added, giving child tax relief as an example. As we report, when asked by Robert Halfon whether Number 10, never knowingly undersold on apparently spur of the moment policy announcements, needed a McBride of their own, he very modestly answered, "it depends".
Dave can meet, too. The FT (£) reports that he is in Riga today meeting prime ministers from the Nordic and Baltic nations as the Nordic Future Forum gets together. He will have to be at his charming best. The Swedes are very unhappy with his referendum idea, for a start. "Without [the British], we would feel very lonely" a minister laments . "We've always looked up to the British but I'm not sure we can any more," adds an ashen faced Icelander. Poor Dave, he gets enough of that at home. From Ken Clarke, for instance, who yesterday confided to Reuters that a Brexit would be the largest blow to British influence since Suez , a "mistake of historic proportions". In cheerful vein, the former Chancellor added that "I was surprised we [have] such a firm reputation as a safe haven currency as we still have such an appalling problem with deficit and debt". He was clearly in a sunny mood.  
Coming soon to a sett near you - Badger cull: the return. Following an abortive attempt by Owen Paterson to produce a pilot cull in Gloucestershire last summer - foiled by there being too many badgers, and the fact that many were pregnant - the Environment Secretary announced yesterday that a cull in that county and Somerset will go ahead this summer. To pacify badger fanciers, a "reserve" is also going to be established in Dorset . The cost of the whole scheme has been estimated at £4m, as we report.
Eric Pickles is facing a major revolt over council tax from town halls after a survey of 250 of the 421 councils in England by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountability discovered that 41pc intend to raise council tax this year. Average rises of 0.8pc include those from Conservative authorities such as Canterbury where taxes will rise at 1.99pc, slightly below the 2pc threshold at which a referendum would be triggered. 
The bullying claims saga at the DfE drags on. Michael Gove was recalled by the education select committee yesterday to answer questions over internal allegations of bullying made by civil servants against his special advisers. One of the advisers concerned, Dominic Cummings, is also the subject of another set of claims on which Mr Gove can expect to be quizzed, this time made by Tim Loughton who believes he was briefed against, as the Independent notes. In her column for us, Sue Cameron notes that Sir John Major is highly critical of SpAd culture, which he believes carries with it a lack of "real world" nous. His heirs in the present Cabinet clearly take a very different view.
Chris Grayling is moving to prevent convicted murderers having access to publicly funded IVF treatment on the public purse while in jail, we learn in this morning's Mail. Let's see what the ECHR have to say about that, shall we? In the meantime, there's a more pressing problem for the Justice Secretary. Sharon White, director-general for public services at the Treasury, questioned whether Mr Grayling's pay-per-result approach to outsourcing care of reoffenders would be cost effective, the Times (£) reports. Given that this was the entire rationale behind the move, a lack of Treasury support could be terminal. 
Minimum alcohol unit pricing has been challenged by the Institute of Licensing , the body which would be expected to enforce the rules. Pointing to social attitudes, the Institute has written to the Government's consultation exercise to add that "problem drinkers will source alcohol no matter the price."
He may be their MP, but the people of Witney can no longer afford to have Dave switch on their Christmas lights. Having the Prime Minister do the honours is "too costly" thanks to the "dangerous" crowd levels, according to the town council, which makes him sound like the Beyonce of the Cotswolds. 
Question Time will be live from Eastleigh. The panel will consist of Jeremy Browne, Angela Eagle, Claire Perry, Neil Hamilton and Ken Loach.

An MP's lot can be a fascinating one: 

@BrandonLewis: "Had a very interesting meeting today about Historic Counties, as opposed to ceremonial or administrative ones." 


In the Telegraph 

Peter Oborne - Ed Miliband should sack Ed Balls - and as brutally as possible
Best of the rest
Steve Richards in the Independent - Everyone's a winner if the Lib Dems win Eastleigh
Chris Giles in the FT (£) - UK's official statistics cannot be trusted
David Aaronovitch in The Times (£) - Mr Gove and his horrible heptarchical history

TODAY: Eastleigh by-election. Result due c. 2:00 am Friday. David Cameron in Riga.
09.30 amThe ONS publishes its latest immigration statistics.
10.00 am: Gus O'Donnell appears in front of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's to answer questions on the effectiveness of ministerial reshuffles.
10:00 pmPolls close in Eastleigh.