Good morning. The Tory counter-insurgency against Ukip reaches full throttle in this morning's papers. Firstly, there's the intervention of Ken Clarke, who appeared yesterday cheerfully franking his leader's "fruitcakes, nutters and closet racists" comments before adding that they were "indigant, angry people" led by "a collection of clowns". The intervention (like the accompanying outfit)wasn't entirely successful - the Sun tells him to "wind your (polo) neck in" - but it caps a weekend in which the Tory team have demonstrated a willingness to play rough. Elsewhere this morning there's a Times (£) story about a £120bn black hole in Ukip's spending projections, and an Independent one about internal infighting by email. Nigel Farage was the only leader talking up his side prior to the local elections. Now opponents, particularly those in the blue corner, will hope that thought that Ukip is not an entirely serious party will return to voters on the eve of the ballot.
CCHQ has been driven to distraction by what it complains is media indulgence of Ukip. Tory high command hates the way Nigel Farage is given an easy ride in the papers. At least that's how they see it. They have been urging us to scrutinise Ukip more closely. And it is not unusual to hear Tories deploy the obvious argument: if you vote Ukip, you get Labour. A vote for Nigel Farage, Team Dave reminds anyone who will listen, takes a vote away from the Tories - and increases the likelihood of Ed Miliband entering Downing Street. In other words, stop messing around, it isn't a game. The onslaught against Ukip, that began with a coordinated round of stories in the Saturdays detailing the unpleasant views of some of its candidates and continued yesterday with Cabinet criticisms, should be seen in that context. CCHQ reckons it's time to play hardball. With just days to go to polling, the tactic has some merit and might turn some voters away. But it doesn't address the deeper problem, namely what is it about mainstream politics that is driving voters towards Mr Farage? Boris thinks he has the answer. Mr Farage, he explains in his column for us, is not Mr Miliband:
"Rather than bashing Ukip, I reckon Tories should be comforted by their rise – because the real story is surely that these voters are not turning to the one party that is meant to be providing the official opposition. The rise of Ukip confirms a) that a Tory approach is broadly popular and b) that in the middle of a parliament, after long years of recession, and with growth more or less flat, the Labour Party is going precisely nowhere."
That's as maybe, and as Trevor Kavanagh points out, the emergence of "the Kippers" as a political force may in fact threaten the Lib Dems in their role as "an irresponsible party of protest with nothing to say". But serious or not, they are an obstacle that Number 10 is yet to find a clear path around. With his 35pc strategy, Ed Miliband doesn't need the votes of the protest party on his flank. Under 40/40, Dave most certainly does. Ukip can expect a lot more attention from the Downing Street heavyartillery in the coming years.
In a solitary job centre in Ashton-under-Lyme today, the IDS welfare revolution finally begins to take public form. Universal Credit makes its public debut at a time of particularly rancorous debate on benefits within the Coalition. The Guardian reports that George Osborne is expected to include caps on the total housing benefit bill and on tax credits in the 2015-16 spending round for which ministers submit bids on Tuesday. In the meantime, there's an almighty shambles developing over pensioner benefits. IDS has appealed to wealthier pensioners to hand back bus passes, winter fuel payments and TV licences, as the Mailreports, and has set up a hotline to expedite the process. As he told us on Sunday, though, it's an aspiration not a policy, one which Nick Clegg says "makes no sense". Simultaneously, Vince Cable has decided that now is the time to argue for compulsory means testing, a position IDS is bound by his party to oppose, despite its popularity with his own backbenchers. Clear as mud, no?
BY-PASSING THE RING OF STEEL
Cutting defence jobs is bad politics at the best of times, and at the worst of times it hardly endears Dave to his backbenchers. That's a problem given that the hatchet men of the Treasury have been sharpening their axes ahead of the forthcoming spending review. Fortunately, there's a cunning plan a foot, as we report. Payments made by the MoD to the departments of Health and Education would be cut, shifting the spending onto the books of the protected departments. The numbers involved aresignificant - around £500m could be saved to help the MoD deal with their contribution to the £11.5bn of cuts the Treasury wants, with at least £200m coming from health and £120m from education. It isn't technically an end to the ring fence, but both departments will have to do more with less, and that means, to the delight of Tory MPs no doubt, that only one department's spend would have been truly ring-fenced over the life of the Parliament...the much loved international aid budget.
LORDS A LEAP-OF-FAITH-ING
Two interventions from the upper chamber in today's Telegraph, both significant. Firstly there's Lord Wakeham's letter on Leveson in which he argues that the newspaper industry's proposals for a Royal Charter should be given "equal consideration" alongside the Government's plans. The former Cabinet minister and PCC head makes the reasonable point that the press can hardly be in defiance of Parliament when "no votes have taken place on the Charter in the House of Lords. So it is quite impossible to work out what the will of Parliament on the proposed Charter is."
Then, there's Lord Carlile, who writes an op-ed for us in which he explains that his background as the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation has led him to disagree with his party leader Nick over the nexcessity for a "snooper's charter". He writes that the measure is essential for public safety: "the Government’s proposals to modernise the law relating to communications data – put simply, the details of who communicated with whom, when, and for how long – are a proportionate response to a fundamental problem that simply will not go away."
INDUSTRIOUS DAVE TAKES TO TWITTER
Those under the impression that life in Number 10 is an extended jolly with lashings and lashings of Fruit Ninja could not be more wrong, Dave told the Sunday Times (£). In fact, "I've never worked so hard in my life," he confided, equating himself to a "caged animal" who was "frequently in the car on the phone to the Israeli prime minister, telling the kids in the back to shut up". Fortunately, the Prime Minister added that he was still able to devote some time to Spotify each week, his "guilty pleasure". Luckily, as the Guardian reports, his team still have time for Twitter. The new social media strategy apparently includes handing out "Twitter exclusives" to journalists in a bid to secure goodwill, and more attentive management of the news-cycle. Craig Oliver is keen, and Dave's inner sanctum wish to turn the Tory Tweeters into a "muscular force at the next election. Explaining the new found enthusiasm for the medium, a Number 10 source tells the paper that "Twitter used to be seen as tool for the egocentric and verbally incontinent," but fortunately that was no longer the case. Sounds like a load of Ed Balls to me.
THE SYRIAN STRAIN
Anyone doubting the long-term damage done by the dodgy dossier and the 45 minute claim to the credibility of British intelligence should consider our story this morning that senior MPs are calling for hard evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria. Reports that the nerve agent sarin had been identified in tests was called "ambivalent" by Sir Menzies Campbell, and in need of "more corroboration" by Richard Ottaway. Meanwhile Dave has been told by Sir David Richards that even a limited ground intervention would lead to "all-out war". Over to you, Dave.
SCHOOL REUNION CHAFES DR WOLLASTON
Jesse Norman made a spirited attempt in Saturday's Times (£) to argue that the reason for the volume of Old Etonians in the corridors of power was the schools singular devotion to "public service". As we report, Sarah Wollaston caught up with the article yesterday and wasn't best pleased. "Words fail me...I'm not asked for policy advice, but just in case...there are other schools [and] some of them even admit women." Meanwhile, Adam Afriye took to ConservativeHome to note the appointment of two other alumnus of Dave's alma matter, Jesse N and Jo-Jo, "jobs for the boys". Jobs for the Old Boys, I think you'll find.
Roll-up, roll-up for your chance to purchase a piece of modern British political history. The infamous pleb-gate bike is on sale on Ebay. As theIndependent reports, proceeds from the auction will go to Nyumbani UK, a charity assisting HIV and AIDS victims in Kenya. As of 6am, eight bidders had pushed the price up to £1,020, and any guilt riddled politicos can clear their consciences here.
PM A HAS BEE-N
He's not the life patron of the Oxford Beekeepers' Association, he's just a very forgetful Prime Minister. As we report, the association's current president John Craven, has written to Numer 10 to remind Dave that he stepped down after five years in the role. There's a sting in the tale, though (sorry) - "I would like it is he showed more interest," Mr Craven harrumphed, ahead of today's Bruissels vote on the use of neonicotinoids.
WESTMINSTER AT ONE
Finally, the World at One is having a party leader week. Martha Kearney will be interviewing Ed Mil today, Nick tomorrow, and Dave on Wednesday.
TWEETS AND TWITS
Entering into the spirit of the inaugural international Ed Balls Day, a certain Ed Balls MP:
@edballsmp: "Ok, ok.. Because it would be rude not to..! RT@edballsmp: Ed Balls"
Today: Universal Credit goes live at first pilot area. Ashton-under-Lyne in Tameside will be the first JobCentre to take applications.
09:00 am: Business Secretary Vince Cable takes part in debate on manufacturing at launch of Making at Home, Owning Abroad report. RSA, 8 John Adam Street.
10:10 am: Ed Miliband walkabout and speech. The Labour leader will set out a programme of ideas to turn Britain's economy around. Queens Gardens, Ironmarket, Newcastle-under-Lyme.
12:00 pm: Publication of a report into financial mismanagement at Croydon Primary Care Trust. This is a joint health overview and scrutiny committee (JHOSC) for six south-west London councils. London Councils, 59 Southwark Street.
12:00 pm: Publication of a report on Operation Pallial, the independent investigation into recent allegations of historic abuse in the care system in North Wales. North Wales Police HQ, Colwyn Bay.
01:00 pm: Post office strike. Workers in hundreds of Crown Post Offices will stage a third strike, for half a day from 1pm, in a row over jobs, pay and closures.
Good morning. Jo Johnson and his policy pals have not received a warm welcome in the last 24 hours. Though some are pleased that Dave is - at long last - listening to his backbenchers, Tory MPs have voiced concern,we report, that the new head of the Downing Street Policy Unit is too pro-European and too posh. "Jo thinks that Europe and the single market are the way to go. I do not and nor do a lot of colleagues," says Bill Cash. Another Tory MP whispers: "Appointing more Etonians doesn’t exactly make it harder for Labour to say we’re all out-of-touch toffs."
So what is Dave playing at? A senior Tory tells the Guardian that it's about "divide and rule" - a charge that may well stick.
"The new policy board does look a bit lefty. Some say it is all about divide and rule. There are committees of the 1922 which are meant to be reporting to Oliver Letwin. Who do they report to now? Graham Brady is saying they should carry on with our work."
Paul Goodman, meanwhile, offers insight this morning into No 10's current thinking. First, Dave thinks he's close to Tory MPs. "No Conservative leader," Paul has been told, "has done more to make himself available to Conservative MPs." Second, Team Dave believes the Tories can win in 2015: Dave himself is said to be "pumped up" and relishing Ed Miliband's struggles over welfare. Third, with 2015 in mind, No 10 may start encouraging backbenchers to open up "clear blue water" in the Commons on welfare, immigration, crime and the ECHR. Paul reports: "On an EU referendum bill, there is a range of options from not publishing one at all through simply publishing one, to publishing one - and then introducing it. On tax breaks for marriage, there are signals that the policy will be implemented, perhaps as early as the autumn."
This is where the new policy board could take the lead. And they have help in the shape of Steve Hilton who, the Mail reports, will be flying back from California "a few times a year" to help push through Conservative ideas. The '22 will be jumping for joy.
GEORGE OFF THE HOOK
Yesterday's GDP figures - 0.3pc growth in the first quarter of 2013 - confirmed that the recovery remains "sluggish and unpredictable",reports the FT (£). But Osborne was pleased that "despite a tough economic backdrop, we are making progress". For now he's off the hook, says Larry Elliott in the Guardian.
Politically... the first quarter growth numbers mattered a lot. After a sticky couple of weeks that has included a second credit downgrade, a wigging from the International Monetary Fund and a setback for the labour market, George Osborne could ill afford Britain plunging into its first triple-dip recession.
But Sarah O'Connor warns in the FT (£) that the economy is not rebalancing. She quotes Amit Kara, a UBS economist, who says: "The manufacturing sector has shrunk in three out of the last four quarters whereas the services sector has expanded in three out of the last four quarters." So much, she says, for the "march of the makers".
Our leader, meanwhile, highlights an inconvenient truth for Ed Balls. "Government spending was in fact up both year-on-year and quarter-on-quarter."
CLEGG VS HOME OFFICE
It only took four words. But when Nick Clegg said the controversial snoopers' charter was "not going to happen", live on his LBC radio phone-in, he effectively ripped up £400 million of Home Office work. "Officials believed they had a commitment from Mr Clegg that the Liberal Democrats would support the legislation being included in the upcoming Queen’s Speech," reports the Mail. Without it, they are stuffed. The plan to allow police and the security services to monitor the public's emails and internet use - key to Theresa May's counter-terrorism strategy - will go no further. Clegg isn't for turning, either. He writes in the Telegraph: "The Liberal Democrats cannot permit what would be a significant reduction in personal privacy, based on proposals where the workability remains in question."
A gruesome image on the front page of the Times shows the victim of a nerve gas attack in Aleppo, Syria. According to Anthony Loyd, the man's family "died twitching, hallucinating and choking on white froth that poured from their noses and mouths". The Foreign Office, we report, said tests at Porton Down found "limited but persuasive" evidence that sarin had been deployed in Syria. In the US, meanwhile, Senator John McCain urged Barack Obama to intervene.
He said it was “pretty clear that the red line has been crossed”. He warned that the world was watching Mr Obama, whom he urged to “provide weapons to people in the resistance who we trust”.
FARAGE'S NASTY PARTY
Are the wheels going to come off Ukip's election campaign? One of their candidates has been suspended after reportedly posting anti-Semitic comments online. It looks bad for Nigel Farage: as the Guardian reports, he says Ukip does not have the "apparatus" to investigate its 1700 election candidates. "I have no doubt one or two slipped through the net," he says. Oops. In a Birmingham speech today, the Mirror reports, Liam Fox will kick Farage while he's down. Margaret Thatcher would be "horrified", he'll say, at the thought that Tory voters switching to Ukip could open the door to her "mortal enemy", the Labour Party.
THE RICHEST MP
Richard Benyon, the Tory MP for Newbury, is the richest man in the House, according to the The Times Daily Rich List. He's the heir to an £110 million real estate fortune - and has spoken of his family's background in "small business". Benyon comes behind six peers, of whom Lord Ashcroft - with a net worth of £1.2 billion - is the richest. Ashcroft will be dropping down the list in years to come, however. Next month he will sign up to the Giving Pledge, a promise to give half his wealth to philanthropy.
O'NEIL THROWS IN THE TOWEL
The FT (£) splashes on the resignation of Jim O'Neil, chief executive of UK Financial Investments. It's a spanner in the works for George Osborne. The paper reports:
The chances of a speedy reprivatisation of Britain’s bailed-out banks have been thrown further into doubt with the resignation of the banker appointed to oversee the pivotal element of the financial recovery. He had, he told friends, run out of patience to see the job through.
What pushed him over the edge? Well, the FT suggests it may have been political interference. "Critics blame the current government's sporadic meddling in the running of the banks, particularly over pay and lending policies, which in turn has undermined their share prices." That's a damaging verdict for George.
TWEETS AND TWITS
Oh dear. Labour's Austin Mitchell is one MP who's not buying into the BBC's new political drama:
@AVMitchell2010: "Should have got the Danes in to do The Politician's Wife. Boring, not Borgen, and so unlike the home life of our own dear House."
Good morning. Westminster awakes to the news of a Johnson in Downing Street, at last. There are plenty of gags around, and quite a bit of excitement, on the back of Dave's internal re-engineering of the No 10 policy machine. The appointment of Jo Johnson to run the policy unit, and alongside him a policy board of interesting MPs (including Peter Lilley), tells us that the parliamentary party is winning its long-running campaign to get Dave to pay more attention to what his backbenchers want. "The appointment of the Orpington MP is one of a series of moves designed to build bridges with the Prime Minister’s backbench critics and to capitalise on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher," reports the Times.
As a measure of where power lies, it could be said to tilt it further towards the '22 membership. But as one MP texted me last night, "when will Dave realise it's leadership we want, not go-betweens?!" You can see the point: put the Jo J appointment alongside John Hayes as "senior" parliamentary adviser, and even the purpose-built Cabinet table extension Sue Cameron mentions, and there's a lot of tinkering going on that gives No 10 an increasingly patchwork air. Or does if you are among those who view the shake-up with scepticism: another Old Etonian Bullingdon Oxford graduate, and - really dubious, this - a former journalist to boot.
Once we've finished with the gags about a Johnson in No 10, there's also the Boris thing. It's tempting to wonder if putting the MP for Orpington in a central role in the machine isn't a deliberate tweak of the Mayor's tail. Those Johnsons are very competitive, they say. It will be worth finding out if Johnson J will be put in charge of the manifesto, a critical position for the 2015 election. And where will he fit alongside Lynton Crosby, who has the PM's undivided attention, and is now working nearly full time to streamline what Dave does down to a few core issues?
At the mid-way point of the Parliament, the policy-making focus shifts naturally back towards party HQ and preparations for the election and a second term. In No 10 the focus should be on implementing existing ideas, not necessarily cooking up new ones. Jo J has impressed his colleagues by being thoughtful, bright, smart. He's one of a handful tipped for great things by other peers, and some talk of him as a better leadership bet than his brother. His friends are working on improving his people skills. The question for Dave, though, is one of practical politics: he may be good, but he's new and untested. He's investing a lot of hope and responsibility in Johnson J, for an uncertain return. Given the need to improve the No 10 operation, and give it some edge, it's worth a try.
The countdown has begun. At 9.30am the ONS will publish GDP figures for the first quarter of this year. If they are negative, George is in serious trouble. "A triple-dip recession," the PA reports, "would take the UK into uncharted economic waters not even encountered during the dark days of the 1970s."
Understandably, the Chancellor and the Treasury are "desperate to announce measures to restart growth," reports the FT (£). But George is struggling to find a game changer: an extension of the Funding for Lending scheme is the latest flop.
"...if Mr Osborne thought the nation’s experts on credit supply, lending and the economy would be grateful, he had another thing coming. In a display of rare unanimity, economists and Bank of England insiders thought the scheme was welcome, but would have only a marginal effect."
Good thing that the Chancellor is as tough as old boots. His biographer Janan Ganesh writes in the FT: "It is hard to think of a politician more indifferent to hostility – which is just as well, for surveys find him to be the least popular in the UK. If a man is already seen as rich and cocky, and then let it be known that he supports Chelsea football club, he cannot be fussy about his own public image."
But what can be done to encourage growth? Well, David Cameron's official spokesman, we report, says it would help if stay-at-home mothers returned to work. It's “good for the economy” that the Coalition is helping parents to pay high nursery fees, apparently. The campaign group, Mothers at Home Matter, says the Government is "obsessed" with GDP at the expense of family life. In an hour, we'll be reminded why.
Millions of NHS patients are being forced to attend hospital A & E departments because their GPs won't treat them outside normal working hours. In a speech this afternoon, Jeremy Hunt will say this cushy set-up for GPs is "disastrous" - and that it's the "biggest operational challenge" facing the NHS. Our splash has the details:
The NHS is conducting a review of out-of-hours care which may lead to GPs again taking responsibility for looking after patients outside normal working hours.
Controversial changes to GPs’ contracts made under Labour in 2004 allowed them to opt out of treating patients outside normal office hours. The review could see that policy reversed.
The Health Secretary says there has been a "fundamental failure" by the NHS to care for elderly patients with long-term health conditions.
MEET MRS MILIBAND
Ed Miliband has "reached for the emergency card," says Quentin Letts in the Mail - namely, his wife Justine, on a media-friendly visit to her old school. Quentin is impressed: "Think Cherie Blair with turbo boosters (but better ankles)." But does she risk upstaging the Labour leader? We report that she was a bit cooler than Ed at school: "During the school visit Mr Miliband was told that his wife had once jumped out of a window in order to avoid a teacher spotting her with lipstick. She also received a number of detentions for wearing a purple coat instead of the regulation black one." Wild thing!
Start taking Nigel Farage seriously or you're finished. That's the message from Plymouth University election experts, reported in the Times (£). They say Ukip is the “most serious fourth party incursion in English politics” since the Second World War and that it could take 6 per cent of the Tory vote in 2015. In the short-term, the anti-EU party "could double its councillors in the county council elections on May 2 and scupper Tory chances in hundreds of other seats". Peter Oborne is enjoying this "marvellous chaos": Ukip, he says, has "become a symbol of national protest against the political class and its now bankrupt methodologies of triangulation, voter targeting, focus groups, eye-catching initiatives and advertising gimmicks".
QATADA GOES NUCLEAR
Kaboom Qatada is the Sun's splash today. Dave is "drawing up explosive plans to ram a new law through Parliament to kick out" the radical cleric, the paper reports. But this nuclear option could "spark a huge row with Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem MPs — and may even run the risk of bringing down the Coalition". Meanwhile, in the Commons yesterday, Theresa May told a joke. Michael Deacon sketches the momentous occasion:
Mark Reckless, Tory MP for Rochester & Strood, had been huffing and puffing about the gross injustices of the European court in Strasbourg, whose mania for human rights had foiled the Government in its efforts to deport Qatada. We couldn’t let them “move the goalposts”, he growled. The last word must go to our own Supreme Court.
Mrs May rose. She had to operate within the law, she told Mr Reckless, effortlessly teeing up her punchline. Because to break the law would be – “dare I say it” – a “reckless” move!
Reckless! Like his name! Mark Reckless!
LABOUR CIVIL WAR
Red Ed suffered a fit of rage yesterday, after Len McCluskey said he was being "seduced" by the Blairites in his shadow cabinet. Unite's general secretary told the New Statesman: "If [Ed Miliband] gets seduced by the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders, then the truth is that he'll be defeated and he'll be cast into the dustbin of history." As the Guardian reports, Ed has given him both barrels in return: "This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible. It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s. It won't work. It is wrong. It is disloyal to the party he claims to represent." Ouch.
CABINET TABLE AMENDMENT
Superb detail from Sue Cameron's column. The Cabinet room is so crowded on Tuesday mornings that No 10 is having to upscale the furniture. She's not kidding.
With 32 crowding into Cabinet, it was so hard for everyone to find a perch that some ministers had to squeeze up on the clerks’ table at the end. Now a 4ft-long section has been made to fit perfectly on to the coffin-shaped Cabinet table, originally commissioned by Harold Macmillan more than half a century ago.
TWEETS AND TWITS A superb #accidentalpartridge from Labour's Jonathan Reynolds:
Good morning. The statistic of the day is undoubtedly one million. That's the number, Iain Duncan Smith will disclose, of people who are capable of work - but who remain "stuck" on benefits. It will feature prominently in an annual report on his Social Justice Strategy. We have the details:
About one million people have been on work-related benefits for three out of the past four years. All of those claimants have been formally assessed as “capable of preparing for or looking for work,” the report will say.
Welfare remains the big defining issue for the Coalition. The Tories are anxious to keep it up in the air, and to reinforce public support for reform by highlighting welfare's failures. Singling out what IDS has always highlighted - the social cost of worklessness - is part of that strategy. That's why his priority is to get long-term claimants into employment, using companies that help put people into work placements or training.
The Tories know that when times are tough there's little appetite for generosity beyond what is affordable and fair. But there are difficult decisions around the corner. After yesterday's borrowing figures (see below), at what point does the Government have to consider that entitlements for pensioners, and in particular pensions, which take up the largest share of spending, may have to be put on the table?
Maria Miller is giving a speech at the British Museum today, we report. It could rival the Pompeii exhibition for fire and brimstone. The Culture Secretary will ask leading figures in the arts world to show ministers the“value of culture to our economy”. The FT (£) calls it a "rebuke" to their "moaning about cuts". But there is an alternative reading: she may need the luvvies' support in the run-up to the spending review.
To maintain the argument for continued public funding, we must make our case as a two-way street. We must demonstrate the healthy dividends that our investment continues to pay. That’s the argument that I, as Culture Secretary, intend to make at the Cabinet table, and in our negotiations with Treasury – and I need all your help in that endeavour.
Expect howls of rage to follow soon after. Her department has already outlined a 30 per cent cut in grant aid for the Arts Council from £452 million to £350 million by 2014/15. This represents, she says, the middle path between the American and European approaches to arts funding. It's going to hurt.
GEORGE'S BEGGING BOWL AND HATCHET
The £300 million borrowing dip spared George Osborne's blushes yesterday, reports the FT (£). "Though such a small decline is economically meaningless, Mr Osborne has stressed his intention to shrink the deficit every year, and his opponents were ready to seize on news it had grown again." Small it may be, but it was an uphill struggle: an official told the FT that the Treasury has been going around Whitehall with a "begging bowl in one hand and a hatchet in the other".
No doubt the Treasury sees things in a more positive light. The Times (£)quotes Danny Alexander in their second day of spending review coverage: "This should be seen as an opportunity as well as a challenge... You can use the process to drive some really good changes in the way the public sector works."
Mostly, however, George seems to be playing whac-a-mole. The Guardian reports that the Chancellor is now "locked in a fight to rescue his plan to offer shares for workers in exchange for abandoning their employment rights". After another defeat in the Lords on Monday night, Osborne is trying to reassure peers by "offering a commitment that any workers would have to be offered free independent legal advice". At this point, it looks to be a losing battle.
RED ED VS THE UNIONS
Tough talk from Red Ed. He says a general strike would be a "terrible idea", the FT (£) reports. He's apparently taking Mr Tony's advice and squaring up to two of Labour's biggest donors, Unite and Unison, who will be represented at the Trades Union Congress general council today. Ed's comments are well-timed. We report that "tens of millions of bills and credit statements could go undelivered by Royal Mail after postal unions said they were planning their biggest programme of industrial unrest for six years". Ed knows that strikes would hurt him in the polls.
QATADA COUNCIL OF WAR Abu Qatada isn't going anywhere. But fear not: Dave is getting weally weally cwoss. According to the Sun, it makes his "blood boil" that the cleric is still here. "The furious PM is considering a temporary withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights so judges in Strasbourg can’t block Qatada’s expulsion," the paper reports. The Mail says that Theresa May's statement to the Commons today will include "new developments in negotiations with Jordan over deporting Qatada". Surprise, surprise, however, there's a catch: "any new agreement would undoubtedly be subject to fresh appeals by Qatada". STOP THE TWATTERY
Anna Soubry, the Minister for Public Health, doesn't beat about the bush. The Tories will lose the next election if they continue to engage in the "twattery" of attacking Dave's leadership, she told Total Politics magazine. The Times (£) has the quotes: “What we now need to do is stop people in the party engaging in quite a lot of twattery, and to accept that we’ve achieved a huge amount, and it’s all to play for... The Tory party must learn from its own history that when we fight each other, you can guarantee to lose.” Meanwhile, Tory MP Gavin Barwell says the party has yet to resolve "the toxicity of the Conservative brand". Voters, he argues, are hungry for more than red meat.
UKIP THATCHER'S 'TRUE HEIR'
Wearing a red rose for St George's Day, Nigel Farage spoke to the Parliamentary Press Gallery yesterday, we report. He declared: "I cannot believe that a young Margaret Thatcher leaving Oxford today would join the Conservative Party led by David Cameron. I think she’d come and get involved in Ukip and no doubt topple me within 12 months or so." Michael Deacon, our Sketchwriter, was there. "Listening to a Farridge speech," he writes, "you begin to suspect the greatest influence on his politics is not Baroness Thatcher but Top Gear: his oratorical style is a noisy mix of blokey joshing and no-frills frankness."
TWEETS AND TWITS Can anyone help Stella Creasy with her stranger on a train - or recommend a better way to spend nine hours?
@stellacreasy: "have nine hours on trains to berlin to become acquainted with films- contemplating seeing what the ryan gosling fuss is about. best example?"
Good morning. It's St George's Day and already fire-breathing dragons are circling the Chancellor. Spy Chiefs have played the terror card,reports the Times (£). If George Osborne wants to slash MI5 and MI6 budgets in the drive to save an extra £11.5 billion, they say, then Britain would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Coming so soon after the Boston bombings and the latest foiled plot on a New York passenger train, it's a powerful message. Britain faces multiple security threats, and they are not cheap to deal with - the FT reports (£), for instance, that the cost of cyber attacks has tripled in a year: "The cost of security breaches to UK companies amounts to billions of pounds annually."
But the Spending Review must go ahead - government departments have to submit their opening bids by Monday - and there are few risk-free or painless options on the table. George knows that he will have to live with the consequences of austerity, whatever they may be.
Making his task that bit harder is the Government's machinery, which is far from well-oiled. As Rachel Sylvester notes in the Times, there has been an "extraordinary hollowing out of the centre" as civil servants and political advisers depart in droves (particularly from No 10). It's "less omnishambles, more omnirambles as everyone walks out," she says. There remains a "structural problem" at the Treasury, too.
What George will have to be on guard for, according to a senior figure quoted in the Times, is ministers waving "bleeding stumps".
“Cabinet ministers will come in and say, ‘Of course I’m happy to make savings, but the only thing I can possibly cut is the children’s cancer unit. Perhaps the Chancellor would like to announce the closure?’ ”
Those are the dragons that must be slayed first.
EU OPT-OUT ROW
There's a storm brewing. Dave's plan to opt out of 130 EU justice and police co-operation measures has been denounced by senior peers. The FT (£) has the detail: "A report by the cross-party Lords EU committee echoes concerns by police and security chiefs by warning that opting out of the laws would have 'significant adverse negative repercussions' for British security and justice." It's a sticky wicket, and not helped one bit by the Lib Dems, who are hardening their stance. Danny Alexander, their chief negotiator on this issue, is quoted in the Guardian: "I am clear that any final package will have to ensure the UK's continued participation in all the key measures which are important for public safety," he says, "including the European arrest warrant and Europol."
ED'S LURCH TO THE LEFT
On the News at 10 last night, Ed Miliband confirmed that if he wins power in 2015, his government would be "very different" to Mr Tony's. The Mail reports that Labour's leader "laid out plans to impose more regulation, tax bankers more heavily and build 'a different banking system'". But what's his strategy? There's one clue in the Indie, which carries an interview with Matthew McGregor, the digital strategist who embarrassed Mitt Romney so much last year. Obama's online "attack dog" says his work would be about creating a narrative. "Storytelling is a really big part of building a movement so when you say 'would you like to knock on doors?' people know what you mean. They know what making calls for Ed Miliband looks like because they've read it on a blog post." In the FT, however, Janan Ganesh argues persuasively that Labour's boldness and clarity could be its undoing. Ed is "one of the the least tentative among postwar opposition leaders".
ENGLAND AND ST GEORGE
Eric Pickles has an ingenious thought for St George's Day: he wants to resurrect county names that were banned by Ted Heath in the Seventies,we report. Cumberland, Huntingdonshire and Westmorland were all scrapped. Eric wants to bring 'em back. No doubt the Government would also like to bring back the "Knights of the Shire" Tory MPs of yesteryear who, Bruce Anderson explains in a column to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1922 committee, were far more manageable that their present-day heirs. DURAND ACADEMY: GOVE VS HODGE Michael Gove could soon face an inquisition from Margaret Hodge, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, into Durand Academy, a proposed state-run boarding school in Stedham, West Sussex. We report that local "residents objecting to the plan have challenged [the academy's] spending on the boarding project", which stands at more than £3 million so far. Our own Tom Rowley visited Stedham yesterday: he found that "few residents were in favour of the school". Anthony Seldon, meanwhile, supports the idea and compares it to the evacuation of children from London during the Second World War. THIS IS DEPRESSION, SAYS WELBY Britain is in the grip of a depression. That's according to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Mail reports his comments, made last night at a Bible Society Debate: "What we are in at the moment is not a recession, but is essentially some kind of depression... Part of the banking system should be local, not London-based." Watch this space. PING-PONG CINEMA FOR THE LORDS
Whips have come up with a novel way to keep members of the House of Lords entertained when they have to stay for late-night votes, reports the Times (£). A programme of films, including Skyfall and The Spirit of '45, has been arranged to stop peers leaving early. It's been nicknamed the "Ping-Pong Cinema Club", after the way in which Bills bounce between both Houses. Will they serve popcorn?
THE ROMANIANS ARE COMING
But how many of them? We report that the BBC has been accused of "heavy spin" after polling 1,000 people in Bulgaria and Romania earlier this year. Newsnight found 1 per cent of Romanians and 4 per cent of Bulgarians said they were looking for work in the UK. Those percentages convert to a worrying total of 350,000. But the Beeb didn't convert them, instead saying they showed "very small numbers of people" were considering coming.
TWEETS AND TWITS Labour's Kevin Brennan with some biting humour on aggressive football players: @KevinBrennanmp: "A compromise on Suarez could be not to ban him but make him wear a muzzle - they do it in other sports like greyhound racing."