Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Cameron mans the thin red line.. Ben Brogan's morning briefing

Good morning. There are two ways to look at the state of the Conservative party this morning. The first is the one texted to me by Team Dave last night which holds that, bar a few timing and tactical snags, 'on policy and strategy the party is more united on Europe than it has been for a long time'. The other view is the one you see in the headlines across the papers - 'disaster', 'panic', 'John Major'. So which is it? It's worth considering the case for Dave. Once everyone has calmed down, taken a deep breath, and considered where we have ended up, you can see his argument. The party is indeed broadly united around a common policy position: everyone wants a referendum, and most want it after the next election. Dave has allowed his lot to have their fun without the need for an unpleasant parliamentary confrontation. The party has got up in lights the point that the Tories, not Labour or the Lib Dems, will give the people a say on Europe. And we move on.
Convinced? No, me neither. No10 says the party is united on policy, when what its critics allege is that it is divided on Dave. This episode has been about his effectiveness as a leader and his ability to command those below him, and what that means for the party's prospects in 2015. I still hold that up until a fortnight or so ago Mr Cameron was advancing on vote-winning fronts: welfare, immigration, the economy (Ed Miliband will have noted that his friend Francois Hollande is celebrating his first year in office this morning with a triple dip recession). Dave's argument about Britain in a global race is coherent and a compelling one to put to the voters. But all that has been clouded by an internal argument that leaves an imprint on the voter's retina of a party of shouty, swivel-eyed fruits arguing about how many amendments can dance on the head of a pin. When Cabinet ministers are willing to announce that they won't defend the Government's programme, things are more serious than the glib optimism from No10 acknowledges.
Nick's in the hotseat for PMQs today as Dave will still be on his way back from the US. If the strategy was to clobber Labour indecision over Europe, Downing Street has found it easier to make accusations of Lib Dem turncoatery stick. As a consequence, Nick can look forward to a uniquely uncomfortable thirty minutes this afternoon after coming under sustained friendly fire for his "hypocrisy" over an EU vote in this morning's papers. As we report, Grant Shapps scolded him for his "complete disdain" for the British people. At least, Clegg might argue, he has some regard for the Coalition Agreement and its precedence over internal party management.
Elsewhere, Dave's aides make it very clear that it's a case of this far and no further on Europe. The Tories published their draft referendum bill yesterday, and the party hierarchy argue that, as a declaration of intent, it's enough. It probably will not be enough to rescue today's vote on the Bone and Baron amendment. The Independent puts the likely number of Tory rebels at 100. Beyond today's vote, will the thin red line hold? Of course it will, one CCHQ staffer confides in the Guardian. "We have got Obama and now this bill. It is like building a dam," they explain. Maybe, but while Obama's star wattage remains undimmed in the West Wing obsessed corners of the Cabinet, the argument that a foreign head of state has an opposing view is unlikely to sway a regicidal Tory. But if that doesn't, perhaps the warning in today's FT (£) will. The paper reports that David Mowat, head of the 40 group of Tories in the most marginal seats, has warned that "banging on" about Brussels will cost them at the next election. Then again, as "there is a pocket of the party that cares more about this issue than winning the next election," perhaps it won't. 
As politics, this makes for a good soap opera. The strategic wisdom of allowing the Tory rebels a sniff of a success which the PM cannot deliver in this parliament is questioned in a number of this morning's leader columns. We argue that the episode "highlights the Tories’ peculiar genius for self-destruction...through their public utterances, a sizable number of Tory MPs have reminded the public that their attitude towards their leader is sliding from distrust to open contempt." For theTimes (£), Dave's handling of his party "has made him look weak when he had Labour on the defensive."
A weak leader in a disunited Tory party. Remind you of anyone? Both our cartoonist Adams and the Mail's Dominic Sandbrook see the parallels with John Major, the latter arguing that "I suspect he has learnt the wrong lesson [from the 90s']. Far from taking Europe too seriously, he has not taken it seriously enough." But ours is a different era. With the Tories unable to secure boundary reform and Labour pursuing an election strategy which deliberately excludes two thirds of voters, coalition politics look here to stay. If that's the case then, as Danny Finkelstein points out in the Times (£), the fact that Dave and Nick will both have their own red lines on Europe in the next parliament will make  continuation of this alliance very difficult. But that's an issue for 2015. In the meantime, the Conservatives have themselves to argue with, and as Iain Martin writes, they've only themselves to blame:
"Once again, under pressure, the Conservatives are getting themselves lost in the politics of the student union; of Eurosceptic angels dancing on the heads of pins; of men (almost always men) having arcane arguments about motions, timetables and Private Members’ Bills. They have lost the plot."
Anyone mistaking Dave's trip Stateside for an opportunity to have his photo taken with President Obama/Prince Harry/an agreeable bus will be disabused of that notion by today's papers. The PM made two non-Europe announcements of note yesterday. As we report, Dave is targeting what his Health Secretary called the "shockingly low" rate of dementia diagnosis, aiming at improving the diagnosis rate from two-thirds from less than half by 2015. As a result of his trip across the Atlantic, there will be a joint research initiative with the US to make it happen. The Guardian adds that Dave has been pushing for ten specific targets for reducing developing world poverty by 2030. This is in opposition to a Liberian plan which prioritised a reduction in income inequality.
Westminster's organisational genius is not restricted to the Conservative party. Labour will announce plans to tackle the "crisis of masculinity" in Britain later today, and who better to discuss the trials and tribulations of a young man's journey than, er, Diane Abbott. The Guardian report that Ms Abbott will encourage men to discuss their feelings more frequently, arguing that "it's all become a bit like the film Fight Club – the first rule of being a man in modern Britain is that you're not allowed to talk about it." So what does it mean to be a man? Well, a "Viagra and Jack Daniels" culture of "hypermasculinity". She's clearly been spending too much time with SuperEd.
Theresa May will today use her speech at the Police Federation annual conference in Bournemouth to announce that sentences for criminals who kill a police officer should be increased to the "life means life" tariff, up from the current starting point of 30 years. Inevitably there is a political backdrop to the decision, which might go some way towards appeasing police officers unhappy with recent changes to their pay and conditions.

How different would the current political climate look with Alistair Darling rather than Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor? It is a question that won't quite go away, especially with Darling's latest intervention on the economy. As the Mail reports, his warning to Labour that "we will during the course of this year have to set out the parameters" for what it would spend in 2015/16 and beyond could easily be mistaken for a riposte to all those content for the party to expediently reject every cut. Darling also points out the inconvenient truth about Labour: that far more was known about their direction of travel two years before the 1997 election than is the case now. While the possibility of him replacing Balls after leading the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence would make Labour a more formidable opposition, there is also talk, asMary Riddell writes, of Mr Balls being replaced by the party's policy reviewer, Jon Cruddas. 

Dr Liam Fox has turned his attention to the Conservatives' problem with ethnic minority voters, as we report. At a meeting of Blue Collar Conservatism, Dr Fox said that the party's  ostentatious efforts to increase their appeal to ethnic minorities risked appearing "condescending". He also that an underlying lesson to take from Ukip's performance in the Eastleigh by-election was that having a female candidate talking tough on immigration "sounds an awful lot better for reasons I can't quite understand than having white male candidates."

There are lies, then there are damned lies and statistics. And then there is the finding that Conservative MPs have decided to get in line with the government. Incidents of Tory rebellion in the Commons fell from 44 pc in 2011/12 to 27 pc in 2012/13, according to a new Nottingham University study. Lest any doubts over its credibility arise, the study still found that the current Parliament was on course to be the "most rebellious" since 1945. Now that is one thing Dave and his backbenchers can agree upon.

Greg Hands gets to the bottom of David Miliband's sudden departure:

@GregHands: "I tell you, he's on a Gap Yah RT@alexsmith1982 David Miliband says moving to America is "an episode, not an emigration". Er, do what mate?"

Telegraph View - The Tories' bad habit of self-destruction

Best of the rest

Daniel Finkelstein in The Times (£) - Which part of your manifesto is for real?
Charles Grant in the FT (£) - Britain could reshape Europe if it would only try
Matthew Norman in The Independent - The Conservative Party is eating itself alive
Today: A Tory backbench amendment to the Queen's Speech expressing regret over the lack of an EU referendum bill is expected. Timing is to be confirmed later. Westminster.
Lord Falconer introduces assisted dying bill. The former Lord Chancellor's legislation will have its formal first reading in the House of Lords. No debate or vote is expected at this stage. House of Lords, Westminster.
09:30 am: Michael Gove gives evidence to Commons Education Committee. Grimond Room, Portcullis House.
09:30 am: Unemployment figures. Latest unemployment figures from ONS. 
09:50 am: Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) annual conference. Universities Minister David Willetts speaking. Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace.
10:00 am: London Finance Commission publishes plans for the capital's future funding. Professor Tony Travers, London School of Economics academic and chair of the London Finance Commission, will outline the findings of his detailed examination into how the capital can keep a greater share of tax revenues. The Mayor Boris Johnson and Jules Pipe, chair of London Councils will then respond to the report. London's Living Room, City Hall.
10:30 am: Bank of England publishes its quarterly inflation and growth forecasts. Followed by Q&A with governor Sir Mervyn King
11:00 am: Owen Paterson gives evidence to Lords committee. The Environment Secretary will appear before the House of Lords Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy EU Sub-Committee. Committee Room 2, House of Lords.
12:00 pm: Nick Clegg takes Prime Minister's Questions in David Cameron's absence. House of Commons, London.
01:00 pm: 200 nuns, monks, priests and bishops march on Parliament to lobby MPs on behalf of CAFOD and the IF campaign against world hunger. Ed Miliband to meet them in Westminster Hall at 02:30 pm.
06:30 pm: Hansard Society launches Audit of Political Engagement. With MPs Chloe Smith and Natascha Engel Thatcher Room, Portcullis House, London.
08:45 pm: Chancellor George Osborne speech to the annual CBI dinner. Event begins at 20:00, Mr Osborne speaking at 20:45. Great Room, Grosvenor House Hotel, 86-90 Park Lane.