Wednesday, 3 April 2013

George Osborne strikes the right tone..

Good morning. The Minister for Mockney's speech on welfare reform receives a broadly positive reception this morning, even if his new-found accent doesn't. As we report, the headline move was a promise by the Chancellor to find a way around EU rules which allow foreign workers resident in Britain to claim child benefit for dependants who do not live in the UK. For those who say the Conservative machine never learns its lessons, the emphasis on finding a legal method of circumventing European law suggests that someone was taking notes in the aftermath of Dave's speech on migrants which was subsequently undermined by questions over the legality of his plans. As Philip Johnston blogged for us, many of the themes in the speech echo those found in Mr Tony's welfare-to-work phase. As with New Labour, there is also a rider - if work is going to pay, then not working will have to pay less (at least in real terms). The next step in weaning Britain from its dependency on the Government coffers may be requiring those claiming universal credits to work longer hours or attend job interviews more frequently, as the Guardian reports. The jobs many will be competing for will be on the minimum wage, and contrary to reports yesterday that will not be falling. As we report, Number 10 has confirmed there is no cut in the offing this year. It's a balanced package, one the Times (£) calls "unavoidable but necessary", although as its leader points out, ring-fencing around half of the welfare budget means a disproportionate strain on working age benefits.

Policy announcements aside, it's the astonishing ease with which the heir to the Osborne baronetcy switched to the language of the people which has captivated Fleet Street. The Chancellor's sudden conversion to "Estuary English...was the sorda English you mide especk da hear from Migg Jagger or Keef Richardz. Budda be honiss widja, it suits dem bedder, cos from a Chanssla, indeed any polidician or staceman, it sounzer bid sloppy," Michael Deacon concludes.

Aside from a popular surge for the Tories among White Van Man, what political impact will George's words have? With his strategist's hat on, the Chancellor thinks he's on to a winner. The Concervative line chimes with the mood of the nation, leaving Labour to attack one of the Coalition's most popular policies. As Brendan O'Neill points out, a great deal of the enthusiasm for life on the welfare state seems to come from the Left-leaning and comfortably off middle class agitators. Appealing to the sensibilities of this class alone is not likely to endear Ed Miliband to the wider electorate. Writing for us, Mary Riddell argues that welfare reforms will force Ed Miliband to abandon the softly-softly strategy he has adopted until now:

"Although caution has generally served him well, a welfare crisis engulfing those whom Labour was created to defend demands more than rhetoric. The issue that the leadership cannot duck is what it would do for all citizens, not least low earners now at their wits’ end. As one senior Miliband loyalist says: 'If we in Labour cannot say what a Labour government would mean, then the question is unanswered and unanswerable.'"


So farewell then Rohan Silva, who has confirmed, in an interview with Tech City News, what has been long speculated about. He will leave No 10 in June to try his hand at being a tech entrepreneur. He's been offered a berth by a venture capital firm which he will use to explore opportunities in online education.When I spoke to him last night he was full of his usual optimism. He's been banging on about the importance of fostering entrepreneurship for all his near eight years working for the Conservatives; it's time to practise what he preaches. He's 32 and reckons he will kick himself if he doesn't give it a whirl. What does his departure mean for Dave, if anything? Rohan was on the ambitious end of the policy spectrum, fizzing with ideas and a hunger to change things. Not all of it worked, and opinions on his effectiveness are mixed. But like Steve Hilton, he pressed Mr Cameron to be bold, whether in tech or life sciences or releasing Government data sets and using them. The PM needs more of these revolutionaries around him at a time when some believe his radicalism is deflating. But we should also acknowledge that it's the mid-way point of the parliament, when the PM and his advisers turn to face the next election. It's a good time to go, and to change the team.


The saga of IDS and the £53 challenge rolls on, and nothing is quite what it seems. For a start, the impoverished market trader who issued the challenge on Radio 4 actually earns £156 a week, once his market stall takings are factored in, as we report. David Bennett receives £232 a month is housing benefit and £200 a month in working tax credit, hardly a fortune, but triple the amount implied in calls for IDS to survive on £200 a month. That petition, which has now obtained over 300,000 signatures, has drawn a withering response from IDS. As the Guardian reports, he has called it a "stunt". He has also told his local paper, the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian, that "I have been unemployed twice in my life so I have already done this. I know what it is like to live on the breadline."

Still, just in case he was tempted to do a bit of reality TV of his own, G2 has prepared a dossier on politicians living on the dole from Piers Merchant to David Willetts. Most famous of all was Matthew Parris, who took up the challenge of subsisting for a week in a Newcastle bedsit on £26.80 in 1986. As the Observer's review at the time recorded, "with two days to go he was down to his last 61p, and his plan to save £3 out of his £26.80 had collapsed. On his last evening the gas and electricity ran out and he loitered in a working men's club, unable to afford a drink." That said, as Mr Parris pointed out in a Radio 5 programme on Monday, he could have survived if he wanted to. His capitulation came purely as the result of a mis-placed desire to please the programmes producers who were anxious that he should fail.


In a private presentation to the Cabinet last week, Theresa May promised to simplify the visa system for Chinese nationals seeking to visit Britain, we report. While the reforms address the concerns raised with her by senior Cabinet members from Dave and Nick downwards, they also amount to a climbdown for Mrs May. As our leader puts it, though, so much the better if the "global race" rhetoric is to become reality.


The Chancellor's new motorway is already taking a toll (boom, tish) on Westminster's relations with the Cardiff government. The FT (£) reports that a spokesman for the Labour-run devolved administration has described the idea as unworkable given that drivers must already pay a toll to cross the Severn Bridge while the Forth Bridge being constructed in Scotland is toll free. As the Western Mail reports, Conservative Assembly Members are hardly ecstatic, either, with Byron Davies pointing out that two adjourning toll routes may deter visitors who think "it's going to cost them a fortune" to visit the country.


More than 100 Conservative MPs have signed a letter demanding that the Prime Minister put forward legislation which would set the date of an EU referendum. John Baron, who organised the petition, said yesterday that "this would address the lack of public trust" on the pledge, politely neglecting to mention that it was Dave's last adventure in the world of EU referendum promises which is responsible for the disillusionment. In any case, the Prime Minister remains unmoved. As we report, Downing Street says it will not proceed with legislation which will not gain support from the Lib Dems and Labour.


The Unite union is calling for other unions to join a 24 hour general strike which it describes as an "explicitly political" attack on the government's austerity policies, the FT (£) reports. It's a position which presumes the strikers are at work for such a length of time each day that their absence would be noted. The NUT's latest suggestion, that teachers should limit themselves to the equivalent of only four hours of teaching time a day, was accompanied by chants of "Gove must go" and a unanimous vote of no confidence in the Education Secretary at the union's annual conference, as the Mail reports. It's a long way from beer and sandwiches at Number 10, that's for sure.


The former defence minister who was sacked by Dave in the last reshuffle, Sir Gerald Howarth, has taken the helm at Conservative Way Forward, the pressure group which aims to continue the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. As we report, Sir Gerald intends to use his position to fight defence cuts, arguing that we must "fund and support our armed forces properly". He added that the group would also argue for protections for the City of London, and against obstacles to social mobility.


Civil servants and council officers, including whistleblowers, have been gagged at an expense of up to £400,000 each, we report. Almost 5,000 staff members have been paid off, including 200 Whitehall officials, including Philippa Williamson, a former chief executive at the Serious Fraud Office, who left on voluntary redundancy with a £462,000 payment from taxpayers. One for the shrinking violets of the Public Accounts Committee, perhaps?


The report by the Banking Standards Committee on the near collapse of HBOS, and the failure of the FSA to anticipate a problem, is out this week. The Independent has taken the opportunity to interview the committee's head, Andrew Tyrie who it describes as "a shopkeeper's son in a party dominated by posh boys...[not] a great parliamentary orator". Mr Tyrie represents a new class of politician, it argues, as "an independent-minded backbencher with as much, if not more, influence as many ministers." It's a career that makes you some strange friends, if this description of a pivotal moment in his campaign against British complicity in American extraordinary rendition is anything to go by:

"It was while showering after a swim in the RAC Club in Pall Mall that Tyrie, in a scene out of Le Carre, was convinced by a mysterious figure 'on the inside' to press ahead with his campaign. Scarcely visible in the steam someone (Tyrie won’t say if he was from British intelligence) wandered past and said: 'I’d persist if I were you.' Taken aback, the MP says: 'I asked him "Have you got anything you want to tell me?" but he wandered off into the mist.'


Branching out from his popular series of film reviews, Mike Weir tackles weightier matters:

@mikeweirsnp: "I just had an automated telemarketing call at 11.25pm! A new low of insanity ."


In the Telegraph

Mary Riddell - A welfare crisis engulfs the nation, but Labour sits idly by

Brendan O'Neill - The Left appears to think welfare reform is sacrilgious - but to the dismay of hand-wringing commentators, those trapped on benefits take a different view

David Blair - We're about to find out if aid really does work

Telegraph View - Remove the obstacles to a real recovery

Best of the Rest

John Kampfner in The Guardian - A radical Lib-Lab coalition could begin next month

John Rentoul in The Independent - The Miliband experiment has been tried before. Remember Brown?

Andrew Alexander in the Daily Mail - HS2, the high speed hiding to nothing...

Graeme Cooke in the FT (£) - Britain's welfare state can be cheaper and popular


09:30 am: Bank of England credit conditions survey for the first quarter of 2013.

09:30 am: Bank of England publishes its housing equity withdrawal figures for the fourth quarter of last year.