Thursday, 16 May 2013

Relaxed? Dave's fooling no one.. Ben Brogan's morning briefing

Good morning. Even New Labour spin would have trouble explaining this one. Sometimes it's best to take a step back and examine the facts: 114 Conservatives failed to back the government's programme - the first time since 1946, it is thought, that members of a governing party have voted against a Queen's Speech. Dave's insistence that he was "relaxed" about it all should fool no one.
It would be easy to blame Dave for being Stateside while this all happened, but it probably barely mattered. The backbenches don't take their orders from No 10, whether or not he is around. And, on a day when there is modestly encouraging economic news, the electorate won't much appreciate a party that looks squabbly and self-indulgent, even if they largely agree with them on the European issue. A Tory election victory in 2015 is less unlikely than most people think. Banging on about Europe to the decibel levels of the last week is only going to be counter-productive to that aim.
The only solace he could take from yesterday was that, with Nick Clegg giving the clearest sign yet that he would support a referendum on Europe, Labour increasingly risk being boxed-in as the anti-referendum party.
While the backbenches rebel - roughly half of them, as we report - they dream of a form of join ticket with Ukip in 2015. Dreaming is all it will remain. While The Spectator reports Nadine Dorries's wish of receiving a joint Tory/Ukip endorsement in 2015, the idea was soon given short shrift by CCHQ, as we note. A Tory spokesman said: "This is not party policy, and it's not going to happen." That may be true, but we can be sure the idea will rumble interminably on.
Germany won't have been much impressed by yesterday's vote. TheGuardian reports that Germany sees Britain's continued EU membership as key to its ambition to counter protectionist pressures and reverse European economic decline. The paper also runs a column from Vince Cable arguing that, if Britain left the EU, it could end up like Ukraine. Vince says his Cabinet colleagues angling for an EU exit "should know better".
While the pressure cranks up on Dave and the government, a few ministers are able to rise above it all. Like Michael Gove. As we report, his comments that he aims to be "the heir to Blair" - his latest idea to improve educational rigour is to award pupils a numerical points score rather than grades at GCSE level - do little to end speculation that he has leadership aspirations, just a few days after saying he would vote to leave the EU were there a referendum tomorrow. There are signs that some of those restless backbenchers think they have found their man, with one saying "The parliamentary party is in a bad way. The leadership vacuum is all anyone is talking about... There have been comments about how forthright Michael is and how well he sets his stall out."
With friends like Gove - whose Sir Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture today will be well worth watching - Dave could be forgiven for thinking he doesn't need any enemies at all.   
Amid this grim backdrop, Dave will welcome anything that lightens his load, however temporarily. So Sir Mervyn King's comments, as reported in the Times (£), about "welcome change in the economic outlook" will be, well, very welcome. Sir Mervyn's final set of forecasts before retiring as Governor saw the Bank of England increase its growth forecast, from 0.9 pc to 1.2 pc, while trimming back its inflation prediction, from 3.1 pc to 2.9 pc - the first time this has happened since 2007. He also spared a little time to criticise Gordon Brown, accusing him of ignoring his advice during the financial crisis to inject more money into the banks. In a speech to business leaders last night, George Osborne said, "Now is not the time to lose our nerve."
Sir Mervyn's exit has been strikingly low key, though as Larry Elliott notes in The Guardian, "He seems happy to go. The past five years have been gruelling and he has had enough." Alex Brummer offers cautious praise for King's reign in The Mail, nothing that "the UK economy, uniquely in Europe, has created half a million new private sector jobs in the past year. King’s attempts at alchemy are reaping results."
In these circumstances, any issue on which Dave can take the lead - he is Prime Minister, after all - is to be welcomed. He announced yesterday that he is considering "extending criminal offences" to cover market manipulation in the energy sector in response to revelations that motorists may have been paying thousands of pounds too much for petrol over the last decade. It's a classic cost-of-living issue that the Conservatives should be making their own terrain before 2015. If only Europe wasn't driving them to such distraction. 
At least for those voters worried about rising motoring costs there is always the train. But as we report, there are already fears of a £3 billion black hole in the funding for High Speed Rail 2. The National Audit Office (NAO) have warned that information used to underpin the DfT's business case is out of date, with ten-year old data to calculate the benefits to business travellers of faster journey times. Perhaps most damningly considering the salience of cost-of-living issues, the NAO also say that there has been no attempt to gauge the impact on demand of higher train fares for HS2.    
All that talk of the Government's reining in of public sector pay has an air of hollowness about it. As we report, the Office for National Statistics says public sector workers enjoyed an average salary rise of 1.4 pc in the first three months of 2013. Promotion, which comes automatically in many public sector jobs, is thought to be one explanation. It doesn't sound like many people's idea of a pay freeze, anyway. Perhaps that helps to explain why, as Sue Cameron writes in her column today, civil service reform is proving such a struggle for Francis Maude.
Whatever his difficulties in British politics, Ed Miliband was yesterday named the world's 20th most influential Jew by the Jerusalem Post, asThe Independent reports. That's only four places below Mark Zuckerberg.

Rachel Frosh admires what protected budgets can achieve:

@rachelfrosh: Great idea to integrate #socialcare and #nhs for elderly. Integrate the budgets would be best way.

Telegraph View - A crusade on behalf of the consumer

Best of the rest

David Aaronovitch in The Times (£) - Unshackle London from the backward shires
Maurice Levy in the FT (£) - France should face up to its fears
10:00 am: Diane Abbott speech to Demos on the "crisis of masculinity". Demos, Magdalen House, 148 Tooley Street
06:30 pm: Education Secretary Michael Gove gives Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture. The Old Library, Guildhall