Friday, 8 March 2013

When the Pryce is wrong..

Good morning. The Lib Dems decamp to Brighton today for their spring conference in a distinctly wintry mood. The conviction of Vicky Pryce yesterday on a charge of perverting the course of justice has given the press an excuse to go to town on the party - the Mail devotes its front 11 pages to the downfall of a "sneering public school Trot", the Sun runs a "Lib Dumbs" series on its inside page. More seriously, it has also dragged senior party figures into a row which has already deprived it of two senior figures. Emails between Mrs Pryce and Isabel Oakeshott suggest that Miriam Clegg and Vince Cable were both aware of the deception over speeding points issued to her husband. Both strenuously deny the allegations, but with considerable dissent in the ranks, the mud slinging is another headache the leadership doesn't need.
The structural problems the party faces run deep. Since 2010, fewer than one in three of the party's voters has remained loyal, the Mail reports, citing a survey by Lord Ashcroft. Only 29pc of those who voted for the party last time would do so again, and were an election to be held tomorrow, the Lib Dems would poll only three quarters of the Ukip vote. Tim Farron uses the "cockroach" survival analogy (a favourite of Tory MPs when discussing the future of the Lib Dems) in House magazine, but he also makes a revealing point about the party's ability to reform and open up to a more diverse candidate base, perceived as something of a weakness in the wake of the Lord Rennard claims:
"It’s not as if you can be flown into a safe seat because there aren’t any. So how do you become [an MP]? By being a nutter and working your socks off and doing the traditional Liberal Democrat grassroots building-up-a-seat-from-nothing process."
But the "nutters" need to answer to the party base, and the Independentreports that Mr Clegg faces a conference motion which aims to foist Plan V on him by calling on him to resist budget cuts planned for after the next election, and for a massive investment in housebuilding. Any silver linings? One. The paper's diary adds that a motion going forward to make it easier to force a leadership contest was submitted by "walking disaster zone" Lembit Opik, which it believes damns the move to failure. It isn't much of a consolation, though, and as Fraser Nelson argues in his column for us, Lib Dem ideological turmoil is just ingredient in a poisonous cocktail which is killing the Coalition:
"Three years ago, Nick Clegg prided himself on the harmony with which decisions were made on spending. But then, he was fêted as the man who had brought his party back into power after 65 years. Now he is seen by many as the man who killed off half of his party’s support by accepting the Tories’ toxic embrace. He needs to produce clear Lib Dem victories from the Spending Review if he wants to survive: a mansion tax, more capital expenditure or the thwarting of welfare cuts. David Laws, who is still acting as Clegg’s chief negotiator, has been known to draw his finger over his throat when conveying to Tories the peril facing his boss."
Dave reached for his inner Maggie yesterday, facing down his backbenchers and announcing that there would be no unfunded tax cutsin the Budget, and no major change to economic strategy at all. There was, he lamented, no "magic money tree" which would pay for them. But, backbenchers will argue, in that case, why not fund tax cuts by cutting spending? The Mail reports this morning that 20pc of a person's income tax bill goes on benefits, an area in which Philip Hammond has already been attacked for advocating cutting. Adam Afriyie replied to the Prime Minister's speech immediately with an article on our website in which he argued that "we need our businesses. We need to start treating them properly". So will he revisit the leadership bid in the event of a disappointing Budget? The Cameroons have been briefing the Telegraphthat the party lacks an appetite for the bloodletting which would follow a Cameron coup and is "too afraid of fresh chaos" for a move to be made. I wouldn't be so sure. If there's one thing the party doesn't lack, it's stomach for a fight, preferably with itself. As our leader put it, Mr Cameron's message was disappointing:
"Failure to act undermines some of Mr Cameron’s personal narrative of what he is in politics for. In his speech, he claimed to be 'a low-tax conservative', yet the Autumn Statement pushed huge numbers of middle-income earners into the 40 per cent rate of income tax...It is widely predicted that this month’s Budget will see borrowing go up rather than down – and the Prime Minister’s insistence that he is 'not for turning' smacks of a disappointing attempt to lower the voters’ expectations in advance."
And there's worse to come today. The Mirror reports that the Chancellor will be savaged by a Public Accounts Committee report which says that he "does not fully understand the impact of the cuts he is making." That said, with the Tory benches in the mood they are, it's the impact of the cuts the Chancellor won't make that will cause concern in Number 10. 
Is Yvette Cooper, apparently. The Guardian's Alan Travis writes that her immigration speech yesterday shows that Mrs Cooper "seems to have taken the lesson from Tony Blair's law and order strategy of matching every 'tough' initiative put forward by the Conservatives and, if possible, outflanking them by proposing a few more practical solutions of your own." In the meantime, Theresa May is busy picking her way through a legal minefield in Europe. The Sun reports that the Home Secretary has met with her German counterpart to search for common ground on "welfare tourists" (itself a misnomer, Philip Collins argues in today'sTimes (£)). Whether the two countries, in alliance with Austria and the Netherlands, can persuade Brussels to free their hands remains doubtful - the Commission dismissed the issue as a "non-problem" yesterday. It does, after all, have more important issues in the in-tray. The Commission also announced yesterday that it would table legislation to introduce a compulsory tax on plastic bags. Now that's giving the public what they want.
The NHS is modelling itself on British Olympic teams from ages past - not aiming to win, content not to finish last - Jeremy Hunt will tell a conference in Dorking this afternoon (see The Agenda). The Mail adds that he will complain of "coasting" which "can kill as complacency sets in ans standards drop". Fortunately, Sir David Nicholson is still in place to ensure standards improve. Yesterday, he received the backing of Nick Clegg who argued in his phone-in that to sack Sir David would serve no purpose but to "falsely satisfy" the families of the victims. But if Sir David didn't bury bad reports, who did, asks Charlotte Leslie on the Telegraph website:
"If we really are to herald in an era of personal responsibility, individual accountability and transparency into an NHS too long dominated by systems and a tick-box morality, we must start as we mean to go on and hold those responsible for covering up potentially live-saving information to account."
Having already wined and dined Boris Johnson, Rupert Murdoch added Nigel Farage to his political contact book at a private dinner on Tuesday. Neither man likes Dave, so it is little surprise that our report suggests that the Ukip leader told Mr Murdoch that he would seek an electoral pact with the Tories following the European elections next year, but only if the Prime Minister would agree to step down. Perhaps that idea came up when Mr Murdoch also had dinner with Owen Paterson earlier this week.
Lord Ashcroft met with Labour's Douglas Alexander to discuss election strategy for 2015 in talks which were approved by Ed Miliband, according to the Mail. While there's no indication that the "constructive" talks will lead to a donation, they are indicative of an attempt to reinvent himself as a political guru ranged across party lines. That isn't to say that he has completely thrown in his hand when it comes to Tory affairs, however. Lord Ashcroft is appearing alongside Theresa May at a conference this weekend.
The Mid-Ulster by-election held to find a replacement for Martin McGuinness has been held by Sinn Fein. Francie Molloy, who was the deputy speaker at the Northern Ireland Assembly, won 46.93pc of the vote, beating the combined unionist candidate by a margin of 12pc, theBBC reports.
A statue of Grantham's favourite daughter will be erected after all, we report. Baroness Thatcher's life-sized statue will be erected in the Grantham Museum once a £200,000 fund raising is completed.
Finally, congratulations to the Telegraph's Peter Oborne, named broadsheet columnist of the year at last night's Press Awards 2012.
It isn't only Inter Milan who were troubled by Gareth Bale last night:

DavidLammy: "Feel like I've waited all my life for football like this from Spurs.'Please Gareth Bale don't stand against me at the next election!' #COYS" 

In the Telegraph

Fraser Nelson - Amid rancour and rebellion, the Coalition is starting to crumble
Best of the rest
Philip Collins in The Times (£) - Benefit tourists are just political phantoms
Mark Steel in The Independent - Being unrecognisable is not a political strategy

08:00 am: Business Secretary Vincent Cable at a London Stock Exchange market open ceremony to celebrate the 2nd annual WIE Women Inspiration and Enterprise Honours. 10 Paternoster Square.
01:00 pm: Jeremy Hunt speech on "coasting" hospitals. Mr Hunt will speak at the Nuffield Trust's health policy conference. Wooton House, Dorking, Surrey.
06:30 pm: Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaking at rally to kick off gathering of party activists.