Tuesday, 19 February 2013

No mansion tax or budget clues..

Good morning. George Osborne's appearance on ITV's The Agenda last night gave little for Budget watchers to chew on other than what we knew already - there will be no mansion tax on his watch. "Very quickly it becomes a homes tax on many people who are not living in mansions at all," he explained. The Times (£) will be pleased, their leader today echoes the Chancellor's line calling the proposals a "slippery slope" and adding that "however large the amounts of money taken from the small group, the sums will not be enough when spread around the large group." You wonder whether Tim Montgomerie has read it, given yesterday's full throated support. Anyway, fear not tax enthusiasts, there's more where that came from! With Nick repeating Vince's line that the super-mansion tax proposals were all a bit of "wacky" fun (office drinks with the Lib Dems must be a hoot), the party have moved on to another idea already. This time around it's another cut to the tax free pension allowance. The Mail reports that the party wants to see the tax free total saved cut from £50,000 to £30,000 each year, with the total pot cut from £1.5m to £1m. They're persistent, you have to give them that.
Another line of George's from last night is worth repeating - "we are forcing the rich to pay more [but] fairness is [also] about a welfare system that doesn't pay for people to stay at home." Remarks like this underscore the point I make in my column this morning - the fiscal debate has become polarised, the super-rich versus the poor. Given that, the middle class have become the invisible men and women of the nation's financial debate. They work, they vote, and they represent the shock troops of the economic vanguard, and the parties overlook them at their peril:
"The Tories have shown a worrying willingness to be drawn into this politics of extremes that characterises the Labour and Lib Dem preoccupations with the rich and poor...The danger is not that the Chancellor will be fooled into trying to match Labour’s tax tinkering in his budget, but that Downing Street will not do enough to explain what it has already done to help those in the middle with tax cuts that will be felt in April."
David Cameron did a fair impression of Ian Bell in his impromptu Indian cricket match yesterday, scoring a breezy boundary or two and going quite red in the face before being bowled by a straight one (the Guardianhas the highlights of his innings). The trip seems to have been a success. Britain and India will sign an agreement on preventing cyber crime originating from China, while the FT's spread (£) makes the business case for the Prime Minister's trek. He is also still hopeful when it comes to flogging India some Tycoon. If anyone can, he can - as G2 reports, few Prime Ministers know the arms game better than Dave.  
Then there's the policy making. A slightly more unguarded Dave let slip yesterday that his apology for promoting too few women to the Cabinet was prompted in part by Sam-Cam's belief that he was losing "more than half the talent" by doing so. One proposal to counter-act parliament's women problem is that floated in the Guardian today - job sharing for MPs. The plans, being drawn up by Lib Dems, would aim to combat what the party calls male "presenteeism culture". Presenteeism at work? It will never do. Besides which, Mr Clegg will forgive us for pointing out that his record on female representation in the Commons or the Cabinet is, frankly, dire. Dave also spoke of his desire to hold senior figures to account for the Mid Staffs scandal yesterday, as we report. Given the equally disturbing Times (£) story on 1,600 avoidable child deaths each year, accountability and reform will need to be the NHS's watchwords for the remainder of this parliament, at least.
Ed was away too, of course. His trip to Denmark outdid Mr Cameron's recent efforts in one important respect. He managed to look even more confused in his photoshoot with Helle Thorning-Schmidt than Dave did when he found himself as backing vocals to One Direction. Takes a nice photo, does Ed.
John O'Farrell apologised yesterday for having once written that he was sad Margaret Thatcher was not killed when the Brighton bomb detonated, the Southern Daily Echo reports - remarks which were the subject of an impassioned Norman Tebbit blog for us yesterday. Lord Tebbit wrote "I do not know to what extent his disappointment that Sinn/FeinIRA failed to kill the Prime Minister was eased by the deaths of five other people or the injuries incurred by John Wakeham and my wife." Theresa May was in town campaigning for the Tories with theTimes (£) reporting that there is gloom in the party's upper echelons as the Lib Dems have consolidated their lead. How much does it matter to the party? Well, the Sun reports that Maria Hutchings called the coalition "a pact with the devil", so it's fair to say there's no love lost. And in case you think that policy is somehow getting lost in all the politics, one candidate has come up with a bold new proposal. The way to create an economic revival in Eastleigh is...to rename the local airport after Benny Hill, Howling Lord Hope tells the Eastleigh News.
The Government is anxious for RBS to complete its internal reforms so that it can be taken off the state's books, Dave told investors in India yesterday. The FT (£) reports that the Prime Minister is contemplating a "tell Sid" style mass offering, but with shares given away for free, an idea originally dismissed by George Osborne, but received better when Vince Cable revived it last month. The Guardian suggests that the Coalition's desire to "accelerate" the process could see it completed before 2015. Only one problem - the National Audit Office need to be convinced of the business case before the Government disposes of any shares in the nationalised banks. I'm not sure an impending election counts.
British energy reserves are on a rollercoaster heading "downhill fast", the boss of Ofgem, Alastair Buchanan warns today in a piece for us. Around 10pc of the country's generation plants will be decommissioned next month as coal and oil powered stations close early in order to meet environmental targets. As a result, he believes that price rises are inevitable. That is also the takeaway from the Guardian's splash, a report that in order to find someone, anyone to build us new nuclear power stations, the Government is offering guaranteed subsidies for 40 years, despite the Coalition Agreement stating that no such subsidies would be made available. Oh well. If the blackouts do come, at least they'll be the greenest blackouts ever.
Justice delayed is justice denied, as they say in legal circles, and Damian Green will make a similar point in his speech on crime policy at Reform at 10am. We report that Mr Green will suggest that criminals awaiting trial are responsible for many more crimes while their cases are subject to "shocking" delays. No wonder he adds that in many respects the justice system has not moved on from the days of Bleak House.
The Law Commission has begun a consultation backed by ministers which could see the right to daylight removed from planning considerations, we report. Around three million homes could be powerless to prevent large developments and extensions blocking out sunlight. On the upside, if the French build us a power station, those whose windows now look out onto a brick wall will be able to have a light on inside, so it isn't all bad news.
Remarkably on-message over the winter months, Bo-Jo broke his self-imposed abstinence yesterday, explaining that Dave's plan for minimum alcohol unit pricing is "very regressive. It hits the poorest people first." His remarks to the Evening Standard instead advocated alcohol ban zones which he said were working "very well" in the capital.
There is one small flaw becoming apparent with the Coalition's defence strategy. The determination to axe front-line soldiers and replace them with territorial army troops relies on the TA being able to attract people prepared to do active service. The Times (£) reports this morning that not only are a net 1,000 reservists a year quitting, but that the current number of fully trained reservists is only 18,340 against a target of 30,000 by 2018. The problem, the paper explains is that, "if there is something good on telly, they won't be [at training]."

Despite a vicious verbal attack from Hilary Mantel yesterday, the Duchess of Cambridge can console herself with the thought of brighter days ahead. Days in Grimsby, home to Austin Mitchell:

@AVMitchell2010: "Duchess Kate of Cambridge coming to Grimsby on 5 March.A treat for her and for us.Wonder if she'll get to Steels?" 


In the Telegraph

Benedict Brogan - Never mind about the rich and poor, what about the middle class
Best of the rest

Gideon Rachman in the FT (£) - 
A disarmed Europe will face the world on its own
Hugo Rifkind in The Times (£) - My house is overpriced. How about yours?

10:00 am: Police minister Damian Green speech on crime and justice policy at Reform. BT Centre, 81 Newgate Street.