Thursday, 21 March 2013

Osborne eases the pressure..

BREAKING NEWS: The Chancellor has been touring the studios this morning discussing yesterday's Budget. The good news? Well, as he told ITV's Daybreak "it could be a lot worse". He emphasised his Aspiration Nation credentials adding:
"We have made a lot of mistakes as a country, over many years, building up these debts. But my determination is not to run away but to confront them head on.
"We're doing everything we can in very difficult times - which I don't excuse, people know these are difficult times - to help all those families who aspire to work hard and get on."
Ed Balls countered telling the Today programme that the Chancellor lacked direction and his housing strategy was a gamble:
"It is not really an approach at all at the moment, the deficit is hugely high and it is not changing...Unless the houses are there for people to actually go and buy this could lead to higher prices rather than jobs and growth in the housing market. It might work, but I fear it may not."
Good morning. The Mail's Maggie montage made George Osborne choke on his toast, he says, but I suspect he'll be broadly pleased with the headlines and comment on his Budget. There are plenty of criticisms about either specific measures - the turbo boost for housing in particular - or the tone - too much politics, not enough economics - but the overall verdict is a gentle "meh!" And that suits Mr Osborne just fine. Laurels and flattery of the sort Jim Sheridan prefers were never likely; he'll be glad that no one has yet spotted an omnishambolic stinker. There is broad acceptance that the situation is exceptional and so beyond his powers.
Politically, has he improved his position? Tory backbenchers appreciate his voter-friendly measures, but he hasn't won over the Reaganites and radicals: David Davis piled in last night. Mr Osborne is helped by Labour's troubles. Ed Miliband had a poor outing, and despite Ed Balls' best efforts this morning, no one is taking what Labour says seriously. Conservatives who want to win the next election should be pleased that the Chancellor has that objective so obviously in mind. That will not satisfy the purists who wish him to concentrate on the vital task of getting out of the mire. But if the criticism of Mr Osborne has been that he is not doing enough to get the Tories back on track to win, then yesterday was a big step towards restoring his reputation as a tactician.
The Mail's hagiography aside, the papers are generally on-board this morning. The glaring exception is the Sun whose front-page fuses its campaign on press freedom with a sarcastic celebration of the growth rate, national debt and swift recovery. Elsewhere, reaction falls between two stools. The Times (£) praises the Chancellor's "politically astute" Budget, but concedes that its success is rather out of his hands, depending on a combination of Mark Carney and private industry. Whileour leader would have liked the Chancellor to go further, again noting that this was "as much a political as an economic Budget". As such, it has left Labour rather exposed. Max Hastings' evisceration of Ed Balls in today's Mail points out that at least the Coalition are attempting to tackle the issues of the day, something which has eluded Labour thus-far.
There was a suspicion that the Chancellor had kept some of his powder dry beforE the big announcement, given the bitty nature of many of the leaks. It proved unfounded, as you can see from our at a glance guide. Despite the FT's (£) assessment that the Tory backbenches were satisfied with their lot, Patrick Wintour writes in his Guardian column (not online), "this was George Osborne's last chance to get the economy growing by the time of the next election. Yet the net effect on growth of the measures in this Budget is precisely zero." Jeremy Warner makes a similar point writing for us, criticising the "faintly incoherent 'curiosity shop' of measures [which] in macro-economic terms was pretty much a non-event." That suggests that whatever the tactical success, this Budget may eventually appear to be a missed opportunity economically. With no joy coming from a eurozone which is still mired in internal chaos, the fact that the Chancellor has not attempted to act as a rainmaker will eventually irk backbenchers. How many will eventually come to the view of critics like Peter Oborne? He puts it bluntly:
"We can fairly conclude that the Chancellor has failed. Mr Osborne has talked of austerity ever since his 'emergency Budget' almost three years ago. But at no stage has he delivered it, or anything like it. He has lacked the courage to challenge Mr Brown’s inheritance. His general approach to the economy has been the same – massive spending, tempered by deceit."
Oddly, most lists miss off Lindsay Hoyle, the Deputy Speaker, who stole the show with his sarcastic asides (video here). He was particularly watchful where Ed Balls was concerned, warning him not to "let this become a circus", and winning cheers from Tory benches more used to John Bercow's lasseiz-faire approach to Mr Balls' constant burblings. So who is this new political hero? Fortunately the Guardian have produced a guide which begins: "Appearance: A supply teacher on a Friday afternoon."
The Times (£) describe the setting of an annual cap on welfare bills as a "power grab" by the Treasury. There will be no details until June's Spending Review is completed, and Iain Duncan Smith will be consulted, but the current plan would allow the Treasury to set spending limits in specific areas (including pensioner benefits), which would lead to savings having to be made elsewhere if the limit was breached.
Red faces at the Evening Standard over the leaking of the Budget on the paper's Twitter account prior to George Osborne standing up. A staff member has been suspended there, an apology issued, and the Treasury has launched its own inquiry. Ed Balls waved around a facsimile of the paper's front-page while his leader was speaking yesterday, suggesting impropriety, but as Tom Chivers argued on our Blogs site, accidents do happen:
"I would, though, like to pre-empt the investigation by the Standard. I can guess who the 'person responsible' was, and how it happened: the person responsible would have been someone no older than 25, who tweets the front page every day, and who is probably paid about £18,000 a year on a temp contract to be in charge of the social media stuff. He or she would have tweeted the front page as usual, because it wouldn't have occurred to them that this is a Special Front Page. And now they're getting the heat from a whole country."
And if the Standard incident wasn't sufficient to prove Dave's maxim that "too many tweets make a twat", here's Lord Heseltine's enthusiastic reaction to hearing that George has just joined, reported in the Mail: "that's wonderful for him". Stephen Glover went further, arguing that joining Twitter was the only way the Chancellor could have made himself look more vacuous:
"When you are putting the finishing touches to a make-or-break Budget speech, and having an anxious last word with the Chief Secretary, you don’t have time to tweet. It was probably done by one of the savvy female advisers who tend to his needs. So we have a vacuous tweet which almost certainly wasn’t even written by the public personage who  purported to send it. What on earth is the point of that?"
Despite the introspection occasioned by the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, Britain appears set on the path to greater militarycommitments in Syria. Speaking at PMQs, Dave complained that the failure of the EU to allow Britain and France to arm Syrian rebels was "very familiar [owing] to the discussions we had about Bosnia and the appalling events that followed". As the Times (£) reports, he added that the current diplomatic measures were not working and "this hateful regime is still in place". But the lesson from Bosnia was not that arming local warlords was an effective way to bring peace, it was that swifter direct military intervention by Western nations would have been the only way to bring about regime change and impose peace on the participants without huge non-military casualties. There are more recent examples which will tell the Prime Minister how popular that is domestically.
It didn't take long for one of the Government's cunning plans to unravel post-Budget. In fact, it took just hours. The scheme which would allow employees to exchange employment rights for shares, proffered on the back of the Beecroft report, was voted down in the House of Lords last night. Gus O'Donnell compared the £2,000 minimum value of the shares offered to 20 pieces of silver. Appropriately enough, opposition to this section of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill was led by the aptly named Lord Pannick, as we report.
In a legal battle between Downing Street and Fleet Street, the press who would lose, a Number 10 source has told the Sun. A potential legal grey area has arisen thanks to the Government's insistence that a paper which refuses to join the new regulatory system could still be fined by it as though it were a member. Meanwhile, across the pond, the New York Times has come out against the regulation reforms with a thumping editorial which notes that "an unfettered press is essential to democracy". What Fleet Street wouldn't give for the First Amendment.
The Chancellor's sometimes mystifying status as an adept strategist and reader of the runes was put into some context by Dave at a Downing Street reception for Christian groups last night. As Bloomberg reports, the Prime Minister recounted the advice his friend gave him in the leadership contest: "George Osborne told me to call it off, it wasn't going anywhere." 
No wonder the Coalition cuts frequently find Labour front-benchers having an attack of the vapours. There is a particularly disturbing one due today, as Richard Kay notes. The Government's wine cellar which had continued to grow under Labour has financed itself by auction since 2010. If you have a spare £30,000, there are six bottles of Chateau Latour 1961 going spare

Tom Harris's commitment to open government wavers:

@TomHarrisMP: "Latest FoI request to Ipsa: which MPs are sharing a flat? Just waiting for one asking which MPs floss at night. Who are these people?" 


In the Telegraph

Peter Oborne - Labour made the mess, but the Tories are only making it worse
Best of the Rest

Martin Kettle in The Guardian - Osborne's in the results game, and he's shooting for 2015
Steve Richards in The Independent - Trapped by hid own ideology, the Chancellor is lonelier than ever
Max Hastings in the Daily Mail - George may seem unlovable but the smirking alternative would lead us to perdition
Patrick O'Flynn in the Daily Express - A Budget for those who play by the rules
09:00 am: Nick Clegg call-in on LBC 97.3. 
09:30 am: Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and TaxPayers' Alliance (TPA) post-Budget briefing. Speakers include Mark Littlewood and Philip Booth of IEA, Matthew Sinclair, of TPA, and Kwasi Kwarteng MP . Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North Street.
09:30 am: Public sector borrowing figures for February are published by the Office for National Statistics.
09:30 am: Retail sales figures for February are published by the Office for National Statistics.
10:15 am: Education Secretary Michael Gove announcement on teaching schools. Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Broad Sanctuary.
11:30 am: Foreign Secretary William Hague gives quarterly oral statement on Afghanistan. House of Commons.
01:00 pm: Institute for Fiscal Studies post-Budget briefing. Building Centre, Store Street.
02:00 pm: Ministerial statement at Holyrood on independence referendum, including confirmation of the date. Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh.