Thursday, 14 March 2013

Downing Street takes the fight to May..

Good morning. Following a brief period of bemused toleration, the Downing Street heavy guns have been wheeled out to counter the May Rebellion. The Prime Minister publicly disavowed her policy on illegal immigration from Brazil at PMQs yesterday, senior ministers grumble to the Guardian that "Theresa is very grand. She is living the life. But she has over-reached herself", and Dave used a party political broadcast last night to dismiss talk of a leadership challenge as "all rubbish". As theSpectator reports, Downing Street has even gone to the trouble of commissioning its own spending review, partly as ammunition against Mrs May and her friends in the National Union of Ministers. "The Conservative party has two modes. Panic and complacency. We seem to move seamlessly from one to the other," a minister is quoted as saying this morning. If that's the case, then the party is definitely in first gear.
For her part, the Home Secretary has promised to concentrate on her brief, we report. She stood out of the spotlight behind the speaker's chair during PMQs yesterday, quite a contrast to last week's glowering performance sat next to fellow leadership hopeful Philip Hammond. When she speaks at the Conservatives' spring forum on Saturday, she will restrict herself to Home Office topics. 
The end of the affair? Not quite. As James Kirkup writes, "Mrs May's leadership prospects are being taken seriously by serious people", not the case a fortnight ago.  While senior Tories sneer that her team seem to regard The Thick of It as a training manual, the fact that both Michael Gove and the Prime Minister have seen the need to respond is testament to real worry. As Andrew Pierce writes in the Mail, leadership talk is now openly conducted in front of ministers by frustrated backbenchers, and they are unlikely to have been calmed by Dave's determination to avoid tax cuts in the Budget. The knives will be out for a while yet.
The messages from the backbenchers on the need for unity at a Cabinet level and strong leadership have clearly hit home. The minimum alcohol unit pricing song and dance is a case in point. With proposals to replace it with higher duty levels in the next Budget heavily trailed and well advanced, Jeremy Hunt has come out in support of the original plan in remarks to us. Describing himself as "very sympathetic", Mr Hunt's comments stand in contrast to the strident opposition of Theresa May, Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley. The problem is, this all looks so dreadfully indecisive. Ours is not a presidential system, but as Steve Richards writes in today's Independent, Dave "could still have prevailed if he had chosen to. No minister would resign over it." 
Speaking this morning at the British Chamber of Commerce, Ed Miliband will outline plans for a regional banking network which will fund small businesses on German lines, the Guardian reports. Presumably, these banks will be state funded, at least initially. National localism. Wasn't that Dave's thing once?
The small business market is certainly up for grabs. Andrew Mitchell's brother, Graham, has launched a campaign group called The Fourth Agenda to protest at the economy being run like a "wasteful expense account". Small businesses are suffering because of "narrow and incompetent career politicians with no breadth of experience in real working life", he argues. Stinging. But while small business may be down and out, big business is thriving. Dave's diplomatic jaunts are starting to pay off in terms of inward development. The FT (£) reports that Qatar has begun talks to fund £10bn of infrastructure spending in the UK ranging from energy plants to a "super sewer" under London. 
The European Parliament has had a busy week. On Tuesday it decided itwouldn't ban pornography after all, it celebrated No Smoking Day byreintroducing subsidies for tobacco farmers, and yesterday it rejected the real terms budget cut hammered out by EU leaders by 506 votes to 161. Those opposed to the deal included several Labour MEPs (who thought it too small), and the Ukip delegation (who thought it too high). That gives Dave ammunition, but it also gives him a headache as he heads back to Brussels today. A compromise deal is possible, but will it still be something to boast about when it's reached?
A report published today by the Lords Public Service and Demography Committee has called for a ten year spending commitment to allow the NHS and social services to prepare for consequences of a rapidly ageing population. While conceding that "longer lives can be of great benefit", the report cautions that a lack of preparation by central government could leave the health service overstretched when the number of over 85s doubles by 2030.
Talks between Dave, Nick and Ed on press regulation failed to reach agreement, following yesterday's PMQs. The Guardian reports that the differences between the leaders are now in the detail, not on the use of a Royal Charter as a framework. However, with Labour seeking to force the issue with a potential vote on Monday and Dave away at a European summit today and tomorrow, the margins are starting to look very fine.
One of the problems caused by the ever burgeoning number of peers (761 at the last count, with 60 more expected to be announced this year) is space. As we report, this may mean that the woolsack - a tradition dating back to the reign of Edward III - may have to go. Peers are clearly living longer, like the rest of us - another case for the Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change, you feel.
'Mike Weir's film reviews' returns:
@mikeweirsnp: "Saw Robot and Frank. Witty with a twist." 


In the Telegraph

Sue Cameron - No 10's new PR man has Whitehall in a spin
Best of the Rest
Chris Giles in the FT (£) - Osborne is too timid, not too austere
Antony Beevor in The Times (£) - Unifying Europe will bring trouble, not peace

TODAY: David Cameron attends European Council Meeting in Brussels. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to launch the second phase of the legal services plan for growth.
09:30 am: Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) releases its lending breakdown figures for January.
09:30 am: Dr Ben Goldacre to give a speech on building evidence into education. He will be introduced by Education Secretary Michael Gove. Bethnal Green Academy, Gosset Street.
10:00 am: British Chambers of Commerce conference with speeches by Vince Cable, William Hague, Patrick McLouglin and Ed Miliband. Central Hall, Westminster.
10:15 am: Ipsos Mori pre-Budget briefing. Moncrieff's Bar, House of Commons, London. 
06:00 pm: Jesse Norman MP speech on Europe to Localis thinktank. Clutha House, 10 Storey's Gate.