Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Cabinet & backbench discipline..

BREAKING NEWS: While David Davis was pleased to see the back of a "blunderbuss of a policy" which would not solve the "drinking divide" in British culture when interviewed on Today on the topic of the minimum alcohol unit pricing U-turn. He also argued that it was a coalition of Theresa May, Andrew Lansley and Michael Gove which saw the policy dropped. Dr Sarah Wollaston, on the other hand, was far less happy:
"I feel devastated. Whenever alcohol is too cheap, people die. If the Chancellor wants a message from me it's that we are already paying too much...if taxes go up in the Budget, supermarkets will still discount it... In political terms, don't ditch it, let's introduce a sunset clause... Please, please try it."
Good Morning. David Cameron has introduced a pre-Cabinet meeting for his Tory Cabinet colleagues. The idea is to get them together before the main event on Tuesday morning to talk politics. In fact, it's a political Cabinet, but every week. And that's presumably when Michael Gove laid into Theresa May for disloyalty, as reported by Nicholas Watt and James Chapman this morning. The Education Secretary is known for his willingness to pile in to his colleagues - some say in fact that he is notoriously uncollegiate, even if charmingly so - but even by his standards this willingness to call out the Home Secretary is a bold move. He didn't name her apparently, but no one had any doubt who he meant. Set aside the irresistible theatrics: what does this incident tell us? For one, it confirms that Team Dave are fizzing about Mrs May's power lunge. Mr Cameron has long nurtured doubts about her effectiveness as Home Secretary, so he must be particularly peeved byher posturings. Second, it reminds us that Mrs May has rivals, and theywill come for her. She is now a target. And third, it highlights a source of growing danger for Dave. He can ill afford to have his Cabinet become a battleground for ambition.
Arguably, the backbenches already are. They were told to behave themselves by Lynton Crosby yesterday. As I wrote in my column, they were warned not to air grievances on Twitter and reminded of the differences between a participant and commentator. The message didn't go unchallenged. As James Kirkup blogged, the backbenchers sent Mr Crosby back with a message for Dave - control your Cabinet. Closing the loop of dissent running backwards and forwards between ministers striving for Number 10 and backbenchers striving to retain their seats will not be easy, but as the FT (£) reports, Grant Shapps has promised to give everybody a cue card with popular policies written on it. That should placate the rebels. Even so, it's a sign that party discipline is at last being taken seriously. With Dave fighting back and Ed, to his party's surprise, leading the pack for 2015, it looks like Gaby Hinsliff's question in G2 - "will a woman [Theresa May or Yvette Cooper] be the next British prime minister" - has to be filed under QTWAIN for the time being.
Tax revenues are one of the areas in which OBR projections have consistently overshot reality, putting pressure on the Chancellor's spending plans. Unhelpfully, two wheezes to increase them have unwound today. Firstly, it seems that Dave has scrapped his minimum price for alcohol plan. Faced with the prospect of legal challenges and a Treasury which thought the plan "remarkably stupid", the plans have been abandoned in favour of a rise in duty in the forthcoming Budget. It might be a neater solution, but it's embarrassing for the Prime Minister given that this was one of the policies he had personally associated himself with. Again, you sense that Number 10's tendency to shoot from the lip and ask questions later has got them in trouble. So who does gain? Well, as the Independent reports one Theresa May was instrumental in leading the opposition at Cabinet level.
Then there's the "bedroom tax" or "spare room subsidy", depending on your side of the political fence. The Independent describes IDS's plans as being "in chaos" after he exempted military families with a child absent on service and foster families (irrespective of whether they are fostering anyone at the time) in his latest guidance to local authorities. The tax/subsidy is still coming, but far from being a catch-all, it's increasingly looking like a leaky sieve.
The Chancellor is being caught in an unenviable pincer movement. On the one hand, there's very vocal advocacy of tax cuts as a stimulus from his backbenchers allied with extra spending cuts. As we report, John Redwood, chairman of the backbench economic affairs committee, emailed George last week to summarise the demands being made by his colleagues. Vince Cable is also making his customary intervention, calling for business rates relief, according to the FT (£).  
On the other hand, there's the truly dire economic data. While this is seen as a cause for action by the Tory Right, the insistence that there is no way but Plan A has left the Chancellor with no room for manoeuvre. Yesterday saw truly awful manufacturing data, down 1.5pc month-on-month, and bad industrial data, down 1.2pc since January. The result was sterling dipping to a three year low and bond yields, the Prime Minister's new metric of economic success, ticking up to levels not seen since 2008. The result is the FT (£) questioning whether Britain has entered a period of 1970's stagflation (high inflation, no growth). As the Treasury's preference is for monetary "activism" rather than fiscal consolidation, inflation looks likely to continue above target. It's the growth part which will determine whether this is acceptable to the electorate. With the Independent reporting that 81pc of the Chancellor's own constituents believing that he is spending too much time strategising and not enough on the economy, it seems that the public lack confidence in the direction of travel.
In the meantime, another voice has joined the clamour for an end to the ring-fencing system. Lord Ashcroft, writing on ConservativeHome, argues that the ring-fence on aid "sits so uneasily with most voters' priorities", arguing that increasing DfID's budget by 50pc over the life of this parliament is difficult to defend with cuts at home, and that this would be a simple way for Dave to show he's listening. Where ring-fences are concerned, he's not listening though. As he made clear on Monday, they're here to stay.
Mary Riddell writes in her column for us that Labour cannot coast to victory relying on the Coalition to fail. Instead it must "man up [and] make it happen" by addressing the sins of their past. But if victory will, as she argues, take many Labour activists by surprise, the same is not the case for lobbyists. The FT (£) reports that there is scramble for lobbyists with Labour contacts after big business withdrew from the party in the wake of 2010 having assumed it was unelectable next time around.
Everyone seems agreed that an end is in sight so far as the Leveson saga goes. The problem is nobody can agree what it will be. The Independentreports that the parties are on the verge of an agreement over the use of a Royal Charter. Not so, says the Sun, Ed Miliband has thrown that arrangement into doubt by refusing to meet with the Prime Minister yesterday. The Times (£) goes further - Dave is about to give up and submit the press to statute, they report.
MPs may vote today on proposals to restrict the use of the European Convention of Human Rights in deportation cases. The amendment to the UK Borders Act 2007, proposed by Dominic Raab and David Blunkett, would prevent the claim of a family life being used as an excuse to remain in the UK. With 104 MPs, including 90 Tories, backing the move, it is likely to be called for a vote by the speaker. Ministers are attempting to delay any vote until Monday while attempting to find a solution which maintains coalition unity.
Our interview with the Government's new health tsar Don Berwick reveals that he believes the service is suffering an "enormous sickness" and needs a "not a single injury" approach if it is to thrive. It's a long way from Mid-Staffs, and Sir David Nicholson is not out of the woods yet, according to the Times (£), which believes that Monday's appearance before the Public Accounts Committee will be the decisive factor in determining his future.
Chris Huhne will devote himself to green activism once he is released from prison, the Independent reports. Cue jokes about swapping perverting the course of justice for fraud. In the meantime, he is subject to quite enough humour - the Sun reports that the tannoy announcer at his prison has taken to referring to him as the "Rt Hon Member for Wandsworth".
Councils should stop spending money translating leaflets and instructions into foreign languages, Eric Pickles told the Commons yesterday. We report that this could lead to some significant hardships. The Urdu speaking residents of Crawley must worry that their translation of "Homelink lifestyle magazine" may be at risk, for instance.
David Lammy mis-interprets the BBC quite spectacularly:
DavidLammy: "This tweet from the BBC is crass and unnecessary. Do we really need silly innuendo about the race of the next Pope? [BBCWorld: LIVE VIDEO: Chimney of Sistine Chapel as #conclave votes for #Pope - will smoke be black or white? #smokewatch]" 


In the Telegraph

Benedict Brogan - Can Syria's children ever forget
Best of the rest
Daniel Finkelstein in The Times (£) - There's only one solution to the PM's dilemma
Martin Wolf in the FT (£) - Britain's austerity is indefensible

TODAY: Business Secretary Vince Cable to unveil the UKTI retail sector strategy. House of Lords debates Succession to Crown Bill.
09:30 am: Education Secretary Michael Gove to appear before the Commons education select committee. Also giving evidence is Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education.
12:00 pm: Prime Minister's Questions.
03:15 pm: Expert witnesses give evidence on cyber-security to the Commons Public Accounts Committee. Committee Room 15.
03:45 pm: UK-Russia joint foreign and defence ministerial press conference. Following talks at Lancaster House. Foreign Secretary William Hague, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu attending. Lancaster House.
06:00 pm: Pre-Budget rally. The TUC will hold an anti-austerity rally, a week before the Budget, with speakers from unions, Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group. Emmanuel Centre, 9-23 Marsham Street.