Monday, 17 June 2013

Hammond not for No 10..

BREAKING NEWS: William Hague has spoken to Today about British involvement in Syria: "We don't rule any option out because who knows how this crisis will develop. There are no easy options." Mr Hague emphasised what was at stake, saying that "A military conquest of either side by the other side would lead to the collapse of the Syrian state." He also said: "The debate about arms is about how to make sure a democratic, legitimate opposition is not exterminated"
Good morning. In the Telegraph yesterday Matthew d'Ancona flagged up Theresa May's burgeoning leadership ambitions. By his account, she is well and truly launched as a future contender when the time comes to choose Mr Cameron's successor. Whether she is a saleable proposition is neither here nor there: it is the confidence of her ambition that is striking. It is no doubt just coincidence that Boris has piped up to remind us of his own capacity for differentiation, this time by advertising his opposition to any sort of intervention in Syria. He is to Syria what Ken Clarke was to Iraq, a prominent voice speaking out against the Prime Minister's idea. Which is why I was struck by what Philip Hammond told me when I spoke to him in Camp Bastion on Friday. In addition to his reflections on the Afghan war, I asked him about the state of the Conservative party. The Defence Secretary has been touted by some as a leadership contender, and some supporters of Mr Cameron detected in his recent sallies on defence spending, Europe and same sex marriage the manoeuvres of a right-wing plotter preparing his own tilt at the top job.

Not a bit of it. Mr Hammond was loyalty itself. His recent pronouncements were "just coincidence". He urged his colleagues to end the "chit chat", to rally round Mr Cameron and focus their energies on defeating Labour in 2015. He has in effect ruled himself out of the running, certainly for the moment, to judge by this: "The message to the party is that we now need to shut down the chit chat, we need to rally round the flag, we need to focus on the enemy, and the enemy sits on the opposition benches, and direct our energy at explaining to the British people why in that battle ahead the choice is Cameron or Miliband. The right answer for the future of Britain is Cameron." Pretty unequivocal. Mr Hammond is a significant figure on the right, so his intervention will be welcomed by No10 as it will tilt the balance a bit further in Mr Cameron's favour after months of uncertainty.

The only hint of ambiguity was his suggestion that Mr Cameron will have to develop a new approach to Coalition for 2015. Mr Hammond wants the Prime Minister to consult his party and MPs on his programme before signing up to a second deal. He says all leaders will have to do this because coalitions are more likely these days. You might say it's a statement of the bleeding obvious that Mr Cameron well understands, not least after the difficulties over gay marriage. But with some MPs grumbling about making sure Mr Cameron consults them, Mr Hammond's intervention is significant. "What is quite certain is that we would be required to set out the parameters of what we would do and wouldn't do in different circumstances in the run up to an election."

You can read my interview with him here, as well as some thoughts on his Afghan trip. And the full detail of what he had to say about the Toriesis here.
While Mr Cameron hosts the G8 Summit today, opposition to his plans to support the Syrian rebels is strengthening. Nick Clegg restated his concerns yesterday. Any international deal must also overcome what  Vladimir Putin's spokesman described as "very serious differences" with Mr Cameron; the PM admitted that he and Mr Putin "don’t see eye-to-eye on everything".  
Opposition is also mounting within the Conservative ranks, with Julian Lewis saying it would be "suicidal" to hand arms to Syrian rebels. Against this backdrop, the last thing Mr Cameron needed was opposition from Boris Johnson, but that is what he has to contend with. Writing for us, Mr Johnson warned that arming Syrian rebels would amount to "pressing weapons into the hands of maniacs". Instead, Mr Johnson says:
This is the moment for a total ceasefire, an end to the madness. It is time for the US, Russia, the EU, Turkey, Iran, Saudi and all the players to convene an intergovernmental conference to try to halt the carnage.
Mr Johnson's stance will be viewed by many as partly tactical. Tim Montgomerie writes in The Times (£) that, were Mr Johnson currently an MP, Mr Cameron's position could be in danger but, as it is, "Tory backbenchers don’t believe there’s any other MP who would save their marginal seats."
Nick Clegg has laid out a significant red-line on welfare reform. He says that further reforms will only occur if there is a "debate" about whether to tackle the benefits enjoyed by the wealthiest pensioners, principally free TV licenses and the winter fuel allowance. But Dave, mindful of his need to preserve his pledge to protect all benefits for pensioners, seems unwilling to have that debate, blocking Iain Duncan Smith's plans to scrap the winter fuel allowance for British expats living in the hottest countries. And pensioners might have more reason to worry, with Steve Webb telling the FT (£) that the Conservatives need to consider their commitment to the triple-lock for pensioners continuing past 2015 and beyond, though Mr Webb supports its retention.
As if fighting the Lib Dems wasn't bad enough, the Conservatives have also had to contend with a civil service system many feel is designed to frustrate them. That might change if the recommendations from today's government-commissioned Institute for Public Policy Research report were implemented. The FT (£) reports that the IPPR recommend that the prime minister become responsible for choosing permanent secretaries and allowing ministers to appoint bigger personal teams to drive policy implementation. IPPR Director Nick Pearce writes in The Times (£) that this could be a way to end Whitehall's Civil War.
The coalition will save a cool £1.5 billion through public sector pay freezes and the end to pay progression, notes the FT (£). But that figure is dwarfed by the £10 billion Dominic Raab says he could save with a combination of a one per cent public sector pay cap and a reduction in the number of Whitehall departments should be cut from 20 to 11:
We need an overhaul of Whitehall. The UK has twenty separate government departments. That is high by international standards: the US has 15, Japan 12, Germany 14, while even high-spending Sweden only has twelve.
A good chunk of the Coalition Agreement has been quietly forgotten. Remember this snippet?  "We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years."
Dave, it seems, does not. Dr Sarah Wollaston, selected as the Conservative candidate for Totnes after the first British open primary,has said that Downing Street has abandoned plans for them in fear of "outspoken" candidates; a Downing Street source says there has been "zero debate" about open primaries. Both Dr Wollaston and Caroline Dinenage, selected in an open primary in Gosport, are MPs who defy Westminster stereotypes. It would be a shame to deny the public more MPs like them, as we note:
Open primaries undermine the power of national parties to parachute in favourites, offering local people more choice and control over who represents them
There could be a surprise in the next Cabinet reshuffle, expected to be in the autumn. Sir George Young, the "bicycling baronet", will remain as Chief Whip, according to The Times (£). I have certainly heard doubts expressed about likelihood of a Cabinet reshuffle - indications seem to be that it will be limited to junior ranks, if it happens at all. Reshuffles are a relative rarity under this Prime Minister and while predicting them, and their outcomes, is a well-established Westminster pastime, it's also risky. Who knows. For what it's worth, I'm not convinced that Sir George Young is being lined up for the chop.
There is the whiff of another Labour U-turn. This time it's on education,with Stephen Twigg abandoning Labour's blanket opposition to free schools in a speech today. Mr Twigg will say that parents should be allowed to create their own schools if there is not a surplus of school places already in the area; but this does not tackle the problems of areas in which there are an excess of places at failing schools. He will also support extending some of the freedoms that headteachers enjoy in academies and free schools - such as over the curriculum and term times - to all state schools. It all means that, even if the Conservatives are voted out of office in 2015, Michael Gove's reforms will not be lost.   

Paul Flynn thinks Mr Farage is unimpressed by Labour's posturing on Syria:
@Paulflynnmp: Why are Blairites, New Labour and Tony Blair beating the war drums on Syria?.. .perhaps to justify past grotesque sins on Iraq and Helmand.

In the Telegraph
George Osborne is moving towards backing the return of Lloyds Banking Group to private ownership before the 2015 general election. He will use his annual Mansion House speech on Wednesday to make the case, but only at a price that would not leave taxpayers out of pocket, reports the FT (£). Mr Osborne will not go as far as laying out a specific timetable - which could be just as well as the share price of Lloyds is still 20 percent less than the price that the government originally paid. Meanwhile,David Davis has written about the future of part-nationalised banks,calling on the Treasury to "come clean about the extent of its influence over how these banks are run" in The Times (£).
Anna Maxter - Yes, it can happen to her
Best of the rest
Tim Montgomerie in The Times (£) - Boris the bold can be the Tories' salvation
Alastair Crooke in The Guardian - The red lines over Syria have not been crossed
Owen Jones in The Independent - How to stop the EDL
Today: G8 Summit begins at Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
0830 London: Thinktank Reform conference on financial security for workers, with speeches by employment minister Mark Hoban and his Labour shadow Stephen Timms1430 London: Prime Minister David Cameron to meet Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to sign off an economic package for NI in advance of the G8 summit. Press conference at 1500 at 10 Downing Street.

1430 London: Same-Sex Marriage Bill begins committee stage in the House of Lords.