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"TOP COMMENT
In the Telegraph
Boris Johnson - Keep calm, everyone - now is not the time to do a Nicholas Cage
Alex Carlile - It's not a snoopers' charter, it's a life-saver
Roger Bootle - The popcorn effect strikes us all, even if you can't see it
Telegraph View - The Blue Peter model of deficit reduction
Best of the rest
Tim Montgomerie in The Times (£) - Team Cameron must put a tiger in his tank
Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun - 'The Kippers' joke is now on the Tories
Leo McKinstry in the Daily Express - Immigration: the British public is close to despair
Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail - What kind of society treats smacking as a war crime - while teaching children to watch porn?
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.