Monday, 4 March 2013

Confusion in the Tory ranks..

Good morning. The Tories look messy and sound confused this morning. It is difficult to discern a clear message from the centre that makes sense of what Mr Cameron plans in the aftermath of Eastleigh. Nick Robinson on Today has described various measures being considered to make it more difficult for other EU nationals to claim benefits here, and what's striking about them is the idea that we might become more European not less by adopting restrictions to entitlements that are more common across the Channel. A crackdown on non-UK residents who do not pay for NHS treatment will be announced before the Queen's Speech in May, as will "across the board" cuts to benefits for migrants, with local families also prioritised for council housing lists. But there is no indication about the Prime Minister thinks of the suggestions made yesterday by Chris Grayling and Theresa May: does he want to repeal the Human Rights Act? Or withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights?
These are bombshells by any measure, lobbed into the debate by two ministers who have the ear and admiration of No10. Are they really acting independently? Were they encouraged to strike? And who thought it was a good idea to open a front on human rights on the day the Government needs Lib Dem votes in a tricky debate on secret courts in the Commons? Mark Field had it right yesterday when he talked of "incoherence". Mr Cameron said yesterday there would be no lurch to the right, yet his ministers seem to be lurching all over the place. Their ideas may be genius, but the impression given is of an uncoordinated response to a political challenge (particularly as the Romanian foreign minister has been assured that all is business as usual). Isn't politicians playing politics precisely what the voters of Eastleigh complained about?
The problems with the message don't end there. The Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs will give a presentation at the Institute of Economic Affairs at 9:30 this morning in which they will call on George Osborne to cut business taxes, notably capital gains tax for long term investorsPriti Patel writes for us that the Chancellor needs to "wake up" to the fact that high tax rates are strangling growth. Pressure is also mounting from elsewhere - Lord Forsyth, Nick de Bois, and Mark Field all criticised the current economic strategy at the weekend, Andrew Mitchell predicted that the Budget would bring internal dissent "to a head", while the National Union of Ministers now has two additional members in messrs Hammond and Cable. As the FT (£) notes, monetary policy is unlikely to ride to the rescue as the Bank of England's hands are tied by the inflation outlook. Every indication is that the Budget will plot a "steady as she goes" course. Every indication is that it will also leave some very unhappy backbenchers.
Finally, there's the Conservative press problem. The knives are out from both sides of the divide today. In the Guardian, John Harris suggests that conservatism and metropolitanism stand in ideological opposition, meaning any reform project attempting to fuse them is doomed to failure. Tim Montgomerie in the Times (£) calls for some TLC for the party Right. Tom Newton Dunn in the Sun foresees a Katie Price led revolution given public disgust with political manoeuvring. Our ownJames Kirkup captures the mood best of all. Haven't we all rather fallen out of love with Mr Cameron, he asks:
"David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservatives rests on a simple proposition to his party: follow me, because I am more popular than you; I understand the voters better than you; I get them, and they get me...But what if Eastleigh is actually about something bigger and more fundamental than policies and promises. What if it is about trust?"
VINCE, PRINCE OF DIVISION While the Conservative party experiences one of its periodic bouts of inner turmoil, it must be reassured to learn that at least one of its allies remains unwavering in his usual stance. Vince Cable did his usual turn in the name of Coalition solidarity yesterday. On the Sunday Politics he managed to criticise his party for its response to the Lord Rennard accusations, outed himself as one of the NUM's cuts refuseniks, criticised the lack of capital investment spending and demanded that Trident be cut in order to protect the welfare budget. Not bad for a morning's work. Interestingly, Vince also criticised the ring-fencing of departmental budgets, another sign that the Lib Dems would be prepared to deal on budget protection in areas which rile the Tory backbenches. The problem is, Dave won't budge.
Tory ire, meanwhile was directed elsewhere. Chris Grayling accused Margaret Hodge of using the Public Accounts Committee for "political grandstanding" and using her position as chairwoman as a "political instrument". But as Labour's Ian Lucas pointed out (see Tweets and Twits), what's the point of the PAC if it doesn't ask awkward questions at inconvenient times?
According to the Government's own report, paying off terrorism suspects who bring claims for wrongful detainment or torture against the state would cost £8m less than setting up secret courts in which to hear the cases, the Mail reports. The Commons votes on the Justice and Security Bill today with a large cross-party rebellion anticipated. One hundred senior Lib Dems have written to the paper to express their disapproval, although the party leadership backs the plans. Still, one member of the usual Coalition awkward squad is on-side. Dr Liam Fox has written a piece for ConservativeHome in which he describes the Bill as necessary to solve the "absolute car crash" currently under-way in the civil courts.
They're back. ID cards are one of those Westminster enthusiasms that refuse to die, and today's Mail reports that Frank Field and Nicholas Soames have both written to Jeremy Hunt calling for "entitlement cards" to prove that a person is eligible for free NHS treatment. Given that one of the policies on which Dave based his early leadership of the Conservatives was his opposition in principle to ID cards, it won't happen. One for the post-ECHR pile.
Tim Farron had a busy day yesterday. Having described Phillip Hammond's idea that welfare, rather than the armed forces, should be cut as "morally wrong" and "economically stupid", he pledged to join a revolt on a decarbonisation target for the power sector. Mr Farron will join a cross-party alliance in a Commons vote on the topic later this month, the Guardian reports. Onerous, nannying legislation forcing up the cost of electricity? It's ideas like that which win by-elections.
There's a sense that Dave owes Thrasher given the manner of his leaving the Chief Whip's Office. Given that, it is not surprising to see Mr Mitchell, who shared a pub lunch with the Camerons near Chequers over the weekend, lined up as Britain's next European commissioner once Baroness Ashton finishes in her role as Foreign Affairs Envoy next year. Speaking on the Sunday Politics, Mr Mitchell wouldn't deny he had been offered the job.  
Civil servants protected Sir David Nicholson by "neuter[ing]" the Francis report, according to one of the academics whose work helped uncover the scandal at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust. Professor Brian Jarman tells us that the final version of the report was "muted" as a result of the involvement of officials at te Department of Health. Sir David faces MPs on the Health Select Committee tomorrow.
A new body based on the National Institute of Clinical Excellence will review policy initiatives in local economic growth, crime reduction, early intervention and elderly health, the Independent reports. The What Works network will analyse policy effectiveness at home and abroad in an attempt to "crowd source" initiatives. Evidence based policy making? It will never catch on.

Ian Lucas appears underwhelmed by Chris Grayling:

@IanCLucas: "Grayling grandstands on HRA then criticises Margaret Hodge for doing her job. PAC exists to make the executive squirm." 


In the Telegraph

James Kirkup - Are we losing faith in David Cameron?
Best of the rest

Tim Montgomerie in The Times (£) - Cameron must find some TLC for the Right

09:30 am: Conservative MPs from the Free Enterprise Group present their ideas on how to tackle rising living costs and foster growth. Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North Street, Westminster.