Good morning. There is no imminent threat of a leadership challenge to Dave, but plenty of chatter about who could replace him. Despite the continued possibility that 46 Tory MPs may send the letter necessary to trigger a confidence vote, the odds strongly remain on Dave seeing it through until 2015. But the path remains littered with obstacles - especially next year's European elections, when the Conservatives could well trail Ukip and Labour. A confidence vote would have untold consequences for the party. It would look self-indulgent, not least because it is unlikely to result in Mr Cameron's ejection, and therefore change at the top. It would serve only to highlight his - and the party's - internal weakness.
As James Kirkup writes, Mr Cameron is short of friends. Sometimes it seems that George Osborne is his only chum at the top. Much of this owes to Dave's rather exclusive way of operating. With this in mind, the identity of the new Chief Whip (Sir George Young is expected to stand aside at this year's reshuffle) could be critical in Dave's fortunes. Whoever it is, Dave will need to give him access to his inner circle for the good of his own status within the party.
No current game excites quite like imagining Dave's replacement. James notes that both Philip Hammond and Theresa May are manoeuvring for Life After Dave, while Michael Gove, especially after his recent declaration that he'd vote to leave the EU, is treated with suspicion. It might just be that the longest leadership campaign in history is already anyway. But if that's the case, beware the tortoises, as Isabel Hardman argues in The Times (£). Boris could yet go the same way as another long-standing blonde challenger, Michael Heseltine. Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom could "represent the new Thatcher the party really yearns for." In many ways this is all rather odd: as Steve Richards writes in The Independent, "the Tories are more unified than Labour or the Lib Dems... Yet these two parties display impressive public discipline, while the Conservatives fall out even when they agree."
Leadership speculation is a byproduct of our age. Even if he last until 2015, as he surely will, he must resign himself to fighting an election campaign with large swathes of his party - and not just the "loons" - giving the impression that they only half-heartedly want him to win. And there are few things voters hate more than divided political parties.
ED HAS PROBLEMS TOO
Against this backdrop, there is some especially inauspicious polling news for Ed Miliband this morning. A YouGov poll for The Times (£) finds voters rating him as less trustworthy, decisive or competent than Gordon Brown, though Mr Miliband is still regarded as a better Labour leader. Perhaps most worrying considering Mr Miliband's critique of the Coalition, 50 percent regard him as out of touch.
What does it all mean? If Britain had a presidential system, Mr Miliband would be in big trouble. As Peter Kellner notes in The Times (£), only 21 percent think Mr Miliband would make the best PM - compared to 32 percent for Dave. It's a reminder for Labour that criticism of the Government alone will not be enough to return them to office. Labour's underlying narrative remains unclear, and the sense remains that they have not escaped their Left-wing comfort zone. Mr Miliband may be comforted that he is regarded as honest by a margin of 39-24 percent, and that voters frequently answered "don't know" to questions about him. But, nearly three years after becoming leader, he will know he should be doing rather better.
OECD ATTACKS NHS RINGFENCE
The OECD have joined those questioning the wisdom of protecting spending on departments while others have their funding aggressively cut. As we note, the OECD’s deputy chief economist echoed the thoughts of many:
We are perhaps somewhat doubtful [as] to the idea of ring-fencing certain spending areas. That tends to lead to deeper cuts in other areas which may not be warranted.
The OECD also forecast growth rates of 0.8 percent this year and 1.5 percent in 2014 - a 0.1 percent downgrade in both years. But, while recommending that more spending be shifted to infrastructure, the Government's fundamental fiscal consolidation programme was not questioned.
The spectre of the Star Chamber now looms over those ministers who are refusing to cut their budgets. As Sue Cameron writes, it was "known almost from the start for being secretive, arbitrary and oppressive". The mere threat of ministers having to explain their inability to cut to those who have is often enough to bring them into line - as in 2010. But there is much scope for obfuscation, with a possible tactic this year for Tories to propose departmental cuts that they know the Lib Dems would oppose. It all means that "fundamentally any Star Chamber will mark yet another round of Blue on Blue battles."
AFGHAN WAR COSTS £37 BILLION
Britain's involvement in Afghanistan has now cost at least £37 billion - equivalent to £25,000 for each of Helmand province's 1.5 million inhabitants. As the Guardian reports, the sum is significantly higher than the £25 billion that the MoD has estimated the cost of military operations in Afghanistan as being.
OSBORNE ACCUSES ENERGY COMPANIES OF EXPLOITING LOOPHOLES
George Osborne has said that he is changing the law to prevent gas and electricity companies claiming up to £900 million in tax relief. As wereport, Mr Osborne used Twitter to announce that he will introduce draft legislation in this year's Finance Bill. It could be an effective way of combining two voter complaints - cost-of-living issues and tax avoidance.
UNIONS GROW TO TEN-YEAR HEIGHT
For the first time since 2003, trade union membership has increased, according to a new government figures. As we report, membership nudged up to 6.5 million. But those terrified by the prospect of national strikes should be reminded that union membership was 13 million in 1979.
John Bercow's grace-and-favour Westminster residence is being funded almost entirely by the taxpayer, as we report. Bercow lives completely rent-free while, the PM paid £14,000 over the past year for the benefit in kind of living at Number 10.
TWEETS AND TWITS
George Freeman is angling for an EU exit:
@Freeman_George: OECD supports UK Budget, calls Eurozone 'dire', predicts contd recession + calls for deficit cuts. Fr + key nations unwilling. #BetterOffOut
In the Telegraph
In the Telegraph
Sue Cameron - Who will cut up rough in Star Chamber?
James Kirkup - David Cameron's circle of friends is shrinking
Telegraph View - NHS is sick, but there are cures
Best of the rest
Isabel Hardman in The Times (£) - Boris the hare should beware the tortoises
David Aaronovitch in The Times (£) - Russia the paranoid bully must be confronted
Steve Richards in The Independent - Cameron the new Major? Don't buy that myth
John Gapper in the FT (£) - Worry about the jobs revolving door
09:00 am: Call Clegg on LBC 97.3.