Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Tory leadership plots thicken..

Good morning. Something's up. The Times (£) reports today that Theresa May was the victim of a dirty tricks operation at the weekend designed to scupper her nascent leadership campaign. Meanwhile the Independentclaims Philip Hammond was "slapped down" by Danny Alexander for airing his dirty laundry about defence cuts. Are these stories related? Let me suggest why they are, and why things might be about to get rather interesting - and fraught.
Suppose some senior ministers have concluded that the Coalition was a mistake and Dave isn't cutting it. Suppose too that several of them have been studying with great care the signs of discontent among backbenchers. Then consider the way the Home Secretary has been developing her profile, mixing uncharacteristically revealing interviews with sharp policy positions - attacking judges, toying with scrapping human rights laws.  That she has lost weight is deemed to be significant. MPs notice that every week they get an email from her aides inviting them to the "surgery" she holds for MPs at the far end of the tearoom every Wednesday at 12:30 after PMQs. In Downing Street they certainly have noticed that her relationship with the Prime Minister is more strained: Dave made her, but now she challenges him, openly. I suspect No10 thinks Sunday's MoS story came from Mrs May; she in turn blames others - perhaps Downing Street.
Mr Hammond too is showing an independent streak as one of the ringleaders of the National Union of Ministers against cuts. He is using his knowledge of the Treasury to score points against his old department, and his former boss George Osborne. Come to think of it, isn't it curious that his broadside against more defence cuts on Saturday was followed by Mrs May's tilt against the European Convention on Human Rights on Sunday? You could be forgiven for wondering if the two hadn't coordinated their efforts.
In fact, you might think that between them they have the makings of a natural leadership ticket, Mrs May as leader and Mr Hammond as her Chancellor. I know, I know, you will think me fanciful. But if had to bet, I would say that Mr Cameron is keeping a close eye on these two and asking himself if the danger to him comes not from the exuberance of Boris or the quixotic dreams of Adam Afriyie, but from the diligent, colourless, competent, steely loyalists around him who had once seemed to be so harmless. And if it were to emerge that Mr Hammond and Mrs May have been aligning their efforts in anticipation of a sudden unravelling, we should not be surprised. As I say, things could be about to get lively.
Sir David Nicholson makes the transition from the "man with no shame" to the "man with no answers" in today's Mail. His performance at the Health Select Committee yesterday did him few favours. Sir David insisted he had "no idea" of what had been happening in terms of neglect at Mid Staffordshire, but added that he was still the right man to lead the health service. Our leader argues that "Sir David must go" if justice is to be done. Writing for us, Conservative MP Steve Barclay asks why the chief executive has won such sustained political support:
"It is baffling that a close-knit group of former health ministers and front benchers from across the political spectrum appear to be acting as gatekeepers for those who are ultimately responsible for this unprecedented crisis of trust in the NHS."
Well, that didn't go brilliantly. The UK lost the vote on the bankers' bonus ratio at the meeting of European finance ministers by the slender margin of 26 - 1, showing that referendum or not, British alliance building on the Continent continues unabated. The FT (£) reports that George Osborne will now hope to fall back on the relatively small wriggle room left by Germany and Italy, both of whom might be willing to back a system of calculating long-term pay which would push the limit up to 3:1. Intriguingly, the Sun reports that the British rescue operation was sabotaged by one leading European anti-capitalist who publicly backed the Chancellor while privately encouraging the EU plan. Who is this shadowy figure? Step forward, er, Dr Vince Cable.
IDS promised yesterday that while he would not tell the EU to "sod off", the choice words of James Duddridge, where migrant benefits were concerned, he would keep the message intact. Discussing the "crisis" which the benefits system finds itself in, he went on to lament "I have to sweep up after the lord mayor's show and deal with what has been left behind," the Guardian reports. The lord mayor's horses, in this instance, are clearly the Labour party. But, fear not. They are now veryresponsible where immigration is concerned. So much so that, as the FT(£) reports, Ed is going to be very tough indeed in a party political broadcast tonight in which he will propose a public sector English language test for migrants and a crackdown on recruiters only interested in foreign workers.
Given Britain's martial history, all military cuts tend to touch on the symbolic, but yesterday's details of army reorganisation by Philip Hammond seemed particularly poignant. Particularly so was the news that the 7th Armoured Brigade, immortalised in popular memory as General Montgomery's Desert Rats, will be withdrawing from Germanyand will, in future, not have any tanks. Instead, it will be absorbed into an infantry unit. The Black Rats of the 4th Mechanised Brigade will also no longer be, well, mechanised, as they too lose their tanks. With more savings demanded from the MoD's budget in lieu of the welfare savings Mr Hammond would like, there is one big ticket item the Tories are unwilling to put on the table: Trident. As Mary Riddell notes, putting it in play might give Labour a way of differentiating their deficit reduction plan from that of the Coalition.
When the Chilcot Inquiry reports later this year it will "challenge previous accounts of what happened" when Britain was committed to war in Iraq, according to a senior source cited by the Independent. While that will mean a nervous wait for many in Westminster, David Miliband's conscience is obviously clear. On The Agenda last night he laid the blame squarely at Dubya's door. Meeting him was "the worst thing to ever happen to Tony Blair", he insisted.
Dave's idea of selling off motorways and trunk roads to private investors has made little headway since being announced last summer. The FT (£) reports that ministers have delayed plans to implement the scheme until after the next general election. It's understandable as motorists are pushed already and would hate the scheme, but however bad the gridlock on the roads, the gridlock in the "growth agenda" is starting to look worse. Easy to announce, hard to implement, the transformational projects the Coalition have put their faith in do not look like arriving in time for the next election, if at all.
Making its now traditional biannual appearance is the news in theGuardian that legislation will be introduced this year to mandate plain cigarette packets. Just like in 2010And in 2008.
The Sun's campaign to axe beer tax has gained its first victim. Mike Hancock has been banned from the Leopold Tavern in Southsea by the landlord who is under the impression that the MP backs the beer duty escalator. Mr Hancock has told the paper that he does, in fact, want to scrap the rises.
Sporting a cropped red wig, Sam Cam has taken to the kitchen, baking cakes in support of Red Nose Day. Our interactive guide to the Downing Street bakehouse will help you tell your Bodum 1928 Chambord caferiere from your John Lewis cookwear, and is available here. Sadly, her cooking will not be available at one of the "sandwich lunches" which the Times (£) reports Dave is planning for disgruntled backbenchers - it will be sold to Downing Street officials instead.
Kwasi Kwarteng followed Harriet Harman's lead in telling the Tory leadership to "man up" earlier this week, and he has upset the Guardian. "Feminist theorists such as Niobe Way think such language is bad for men and women, denying young boys in particular a way of dealing with emotions post adolescence," it warns, adding sternly "doing the right thing, after all, is the most gender-neutral thing you can do".
Diane Abbott with a mixture of Labour in-fighting and old-school spelling:

HackneyAbbott: "Frank Field MP raising the alarm about millions of Rumanian & Bulgarians he claims are poised to swarm into UK #depressingscaremongering" 

In the Telegraph

Mary Riddell - How Labour can fire a missile the Tories' way in this cuts war
Best of the rest
David Wighton in The Times (£) - Britain is losing the battle to save the City

TODAY: Prime Minister to host an Afghan Investment conference. Also attended by Development Secretary Justine Greening and Development Minister Alan Duncan. Treasury and Business Department to launch a joint consultation on consumer credit.
09:45 am: The Bank of England Governor Sir Mervyn King and deputy governor designate Andrew Bailey give evidence to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.
12:00 pm: Prime Minister's Questions. House of Commons.
04:00 pm: Europe minister David Lidington gives evidence to Lords EU Committee on the European Court of Justice. Committee Room 1, House of Lords,.