Good morning. The run-up to the Budget looks like it's going to be a grind for George Osborne. The latest ICM poll for the Guardian gives Labour a whacking lead, and puts them back in front on the economy, a measure the Chancellor's team liked to remind us remained in their favour. The Tories poll only 29pc (-4pc on January) with Labour on 41pc (+3pc), the 12pt gap is the largest lead since May 2003 and Blair's Iraq bounce. Rachel Sylvester has become the latest to chronicle the pressure he is coming under to DO SOMETHING!!! Some of it is ideological manoeuvring by Reaganite Tories wanting self-financing tax cuts. Some of it is incipient panic from backbenchers who fear for their seats. And some of it is simply a response to the confusion surrounding the economy: even Jeremy Warner admits he doesn't know what's going on. Amid all that the Chancellor by all accounts maintains a reassuring equanimity. Those expecting a big bang shouldn't hold their breaths - he's not a Reaganite and doubts that there's a magic bullet hidden in the Treasury. As I set out in my column, he believes there's no alternative to the hard road ahead.
Frustration with the Chancellor's approach abounds. Vince Cable, admittedly not the most loyal of lieutenants, is in the FT (£) this morning complaining that the Chancellor needs to borrow more to fund capital investment and issuing a hands-off warning over parts of his departmental budget. Attacks from the blue corner are also becoming bolder. Douglas Carswell's article on "Osbrownomics" for us at the weekend may be argued away as a statement of the awkward squad's position, but George Freeman's argument on ConservativeHomeyesterday that the Chancellor's policies help the same cartel of big firms without doing enough for entrepreneurs packs a punch given his well regarded work for the Coalition on life sciences strategy.
The call for boldness is becoming louder. I use my column to argue that voters don't want a return to Labour's credit fuelled boom, it's the future which counts:
"We know we are poorer, and cannot expect a return to the credit-fuelled artificial wealth that kept us going for more than a decade. However the politicians frame the question, we will surely vote on the prospects for our future prosperity."HAGUE CONDEMNS NUCLEAR TEST
Overnight, North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear weapon in an underground explosion which has been strongly condemned by the UK.William Hague made a statement this morning claiming that the tests only serve to "increase regional tension" and promising a "robust response". The UN Security Council is meeting urgently this morning. For the latest updates, check Telegraph Online.BALLS: LABOUR'S REFERENDUM POLICY "STUPID"
If the Conservative leadership has it bad with troublesome backbenchers, spare a thought for Ed who has a very troublesome frontbencher to deal with. Labour would be "stupid" to fight the next election opposed to an in/out referendum on the EU, according to Ed Balls. We report that the shadow chancellor's interview with the Yorkshire Post included his belief that Labour could go into the next election neither as the status-quo party nor the anti-referendum party. How that squares with Ed's assertion that "we don't want an in/out referendum" is anyone's guess.
PRESS REGULATION TO PROCEED BY ROYAL COMMISSION
Maria Miller will outline the details of the new press watchdog today, and the odds look good on all-party agreement to a regulatory solution. Labour have dropped their insistence that press regulation proceeds by legislation rather than Royal Charter, the Sun reports.
MID STAFFORDSHIRE NET CAST WIDER
A further nine hospitals are under investigation for their suspiciously high mortality rates, bringing the total being investigated in the wake of the Francis report to 14. Our calculations indicate that as many as 6,000 patients may have died above and beyond the numbers which would normally be expected. More pressure on Sir David Nicholson, and anecdotal evidence to suggest that malpractice occurred both before and after the switch between governments. Not a proud day for Westminster or Whitehall.
Not the most auspicious of starts for Maria Hutchings in Eastleigh - theTimes (£) reports that her description of the town on her campaign website was a copy and paste job from Wikipedia. While the Lib Dems were crowing about that, Nick Clegg was supporting their candidate Mike Thornton on the campaign trail. Refusing to apologise for Chris Huhne, he called him "an extremely good local MP", which will probably go down just as well. The FT's (£) guide to the runners and riders finds the Lib Dems in a confident mood with a fortnight still to run. Still, if the Conservatives show anything like the steel of the Communities Secretary they should be fine. Eric Pickles was campaigning with Mrs Hutchings yesterday, and as the Eastleigh News's picture demonstrates, showed those Southern wimps how it's done, braving the sleet and snow with no coat, his jacket undone and a tie clip the only concession to the ravages of the elements. They breed 'em tough in Yorkshire.FSA HEAD URGES CHICKEN AND PORK INVESTIGATION
In an interview with us, Catherine Brown, head of the Food Standards Agency, has called for testing of chicken and pork products once the beef/horse confusion is cleared up. She is worried that cross-contamination in the wider food chain. Sensing the need to communicate a clear message, she added that eating Bute was probably fine, although she would not eat a Findus lasagne herself. Horses for courses, I suppose.A NUCLEAR APPROACH TO THE PUBLIC BALANCE SHEET
EDF and the Government are in talks over a possible public guarantee for some of the costs involved in building a new generation of nuclear power stations, the FT (£) reports. The arrangement would see the Treasury underwriting some of EDF's borrowing, a move which should make the remaining debt more attractive for lenders, and hence cheaper for EDF. For a government which was not going to offer public subsidies for nuclear, this looks awfully like a public subsidy for nuclear. Then again, the UK Guarantees Scheme was set up to underwrite £40bn of infrastructure investments, and if the slow development rate is anything to go by, it can't have been very busy so far.
LIES, DAMNED LIES AND IMMIGRATION SATISTICS
The Government is unable to share its predictions on the number of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants likely to head to Britain once the ban lapses because to do so would be "not helpful", Mark Harper told Parliament yesterday. That makes a change from Eric Pickles being unable to share the estimates because he was "not confident" in them, and the Home Office source we cite who insists that the projections do not exist. No update on how the "Britain: it's rubbish" advertising campaign was coming along either, curiously.
THE NEW NHS
Reform are hosting a conference on the shape of the new NHS at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists this afternoon. Jeremy Hunt is on at 2pm giving a speech on his health and social care vision. He is followed by Liz Kendall at 4:45pm. She'll give the keynote speech for Labour, questioning whether either the Coalition plans or the recommendations from the Francis report will succeed in in putting the public at the heart of the NHS.BARWELL DISCRIMINATION BILL PASSES THIRD LORDS READING
Oh dear, Conor Burns complains that Bad Dave was in Parliament yesterday. Calm down, dear...:
@Conor_BurnsMP: "PM does himself no favours in EU statement with jokes about handbags linked to reference to gay marriage."
Guardian / ICM: Con 29%, Lab 41%, Lib Dem 13%, Ukip 9%TOP COMMENT
In the Telegraph
Peter Stanford - The Pope who was not afraid to say sorry
Phillip Johnson - Why is it the State's job to pay for our care?
Telegraph View - A Pope of surprises, and none more than his lastBest of the rest
Rachel Sylvester in The Times (£) - Budget poker: Osborne needs a trump card
Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail - A betrayal of Tory values that shatters the hopes of ordinary families
Gideon Rachman in the FT (£) - A rare sighting of good news in Europe
09.30 am: Gus O'Donnell gives evidence on the future of the civil service to the Public Administration Committee.
09.30 am: Robert Francis, chair of the Mid Staffs inquiry, appears before the Health Select Committee.
02:05 pm: Jeremy Hunt speaks at a Reform conference on the future of the NHS, followed by Liz Kendall at 4:45.