Good morning. Everyone's back from the half-term break. Three big strands in the papers: Labour via Ed Balls has scrapped the universality principle; Nick Clegg has seized the sleazebuster mantle from David Cameron; and a slew of prominent Tory peers have come out for gay marriage. Of those, the first is the best opener for the new season. The Shadow Chancellor is speaking at Reuters today, and the overnight briefing has him announcing that Labour would take away the winter fuel allowance from the wealthiest five per cent of pensioners. It's being dressed up as an earnest of Labour's 'iron discipline' in the face of the budget deficit.
Mr Balls - and Chris Leslie, who was out and about earlier explaining the plan - is talking about 'tough decisions'. But is it? In fiscal terms, hardly. It raises very small peanuts; arguably, it makes no difference at all, in that the £105m/yr it raises barely qualifies as a rounding error compared to what's needed. So it has to be measured for its political impact. That's where I fear it may deliver more pain than benefit for Labour. Ed Miliband and Mr Balls have been under pressure for months to show they understand the economic task at hand. If they had hoped to improve their credibility, they will be disappointed: Westminster may conclude that it's too little to be worth taking them seriously. Instead, they will get flak from Labour colleagues for putting the principle of benefit universality on the block, and are not strong enough to be confident of withstanding the party backlash. Then there's the voters, specifically the elderly.
Dave has been criticised for defending pensioner entitlements againt all comers: he has made it a matter of personal trust. Indeed, it was Gordon Brown who used a startling amount of political dishonesty during the 2010 campaign to push Mr Cameron into making his pledge. How ironic then that it's Mr Miliband who today comes out as the leader who will take cash off pensioners. Mr Balls will argue that the wealthiest pensioners can afford it, but that's a subtlety that may be missed come the 2015 election. Labour is taking a risk that it may have just handed the Tories a potent weapon. But Mr Balls' speech is important because it will give a indication of his response to the spending review later this month. George Osborne wants to corner him into accepting the Coalition's 2015/16 spending plans. Mr Balls in turn needs to give himself room for manoeuvre. Dropping universality in exchange for a small amount of cash may be just one piece of the emerging Labour plan, but on this evidence it is hard to see how Mr Miliband wins from it.
But there is also an interesting hint that Labour plan to address the Conservatives on the deficit in Mr Balls' speech - though the challenge will be to turn this into a positiion of credibility:
At the time of the 2010 Spending Review, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that the deficit would fall to £18bn in 2015-16. It is now forecast to be £96bn – that’s £78bn higher, even with the further deep cuts in public spending which the Chancellor has programmed in for 2015-16.
One man who is evidently not impressed is Grant Shapps, who has written for ConHome comparing the policy development of Labour now to the Conservatives in 2008:
By this time in Opposition, we had released a raft of Green Papers detailing our plans. Complacently, Labour are leaving it too late to come up with the big answers to the problems our nation faces
SACKING MPS IS BACK
Remember when Nick was boldly proclaiming that this Government would produce the greatest set of political reforms since 1832? The lobbying scandal has given him a chance to rediscover this reforming zeal. He writes today that it feels like "groundhog day" and the "political system has long been crying out for head-to-toe reform". Nick's intervention came as Lord Laird resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party after offering to arrange for Parliamentary questions for £2,000 a month, while Labour have suspended Lord Mackenzie and Lord Cunningham after further cash-for-questions revelations.
Mr Clegg has two main proposals: the introduction of the power of recall of MPs; and new laws to create a statutory register of lobbyists. As he acknowledges, there is not a lot of time left in this Parliament to give Westminster an overhaul. And there can be no botch-job, because the risk of populism is acute. Do we really want a situation where by-elections can be called on the basis of an MP in a marginal seat taking a couple of unpopular votes?
But if done right, the two measures would constitute a significant change in the nature of Westminster. Few - least of all Mr Clegg - were particularly surprised about the spate of lobbying revelations. As ever, the worry is that this will only cement the distrust and loathing the public feels for MPs. All of which might be enough for Nigel Farage to have a quiet drink to.
And some politicians really don't help themselves. This is touched upon in our leader:
Clive Soley, the veteran Labour politician, told the BBC that he believed there was a "Leveson agenda" behind such journalistic enterprise that demonstrated the need for "proper" – presumably statutory – press regulation. His fatuous and very revealing comments show how resistant some parliamentarians remain to outside scrutiny.
Political reform is often described as trivial: a classic 'third term issue' and eccentric Lib Dem obsession. Not everyone places it so low down on their list of priorities, as Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan make clear. They ask what happened to the idea of open primaries - a forgotten part of the coalition agreement - and the mysterious death of the requirement to require a Commons vote before Britain went to war. But, while it's easy to forget, this Government hasn't been as allergic to political reform as often suggested:
We can elect our police chiefs. We’ve scrapped some quangos. Local communities have the power to hold referendums on where to build new houses. Parliamentary committees are elected rather than appointed by whips.
TALKING OF SLEAZE ...
The comparisons between Dave's government and John Major's are already over-used. But they will only increase in the wake of the Mail on Sunday's splash about a politically-significant romantic affair. And, as we report, there are long-standing rumours that there are extramarital affairs involving at least six people in or close to the Government.
CHURCH TELLS BISHOPS: LET GAY MARRIAGE PASS
The Church of England has put pressure on bishops not to oppose gay marriage in the Lords on Tuesday. As we report, the Church fears that bishops voting against the legislation risks reopening uncomfortable questions over the right of bishops to sit in the Lords. That is also the fear expressed by Viscount Astor, who warns what could happen if the Lords digs in now:
The Lords would be seen as an undemocratic chamber, not the guardian of democracy it often is. More than that, it would hasten the threatened and dangerous constitutional changes to the Upper House that some of us have fought hard against for so many years.
There rather feels like a final concerted push by supporters to make sure same-sex marriage passes. A group of prominent Tory stalwarts havesigned a letter to The Times voicing their support; John Browne has written for the FT (£) that gay marriage would be good for business; and,writing about his legalisation of same-sex marriage as mayor of New York in The Guardian, Michael Bloomberg believes support for it is on the right side of history.
One way of reducing opposition to gay marriage would be to introduce tax breaks for marriage. But Helen Grant gas said these will not come in any "trade off", as we report.
RINGFENCE? WHAT RINGFENCE?
Few ministers can inspire as much jealousy as Jeremy Hunt, he of the extravagent unprotected budget attacked by the National Union of Ministers. Well, that's not how he'd see it. Speaking to the FT (£), Mr Hunt says that demand on the NHS is rising by about four percent a year and his department should be left alone, thank you very much:
We are having to make efficiency savings on the scale of other government departments just to stand still
With so many departments struggling to find the necessary savings, the news that Francis Maude has found £10 billion in annual savings across Whitehall - £2 billion above the target the Coalition set in 2010 - is a welcome surprise.
CIVIL SERVICE GETS POLITICAL
Ministers should be allowed to choose their permanent secretaries, according to a new Institute for Government report. As The Times (£) notes, the report comes in the wake of the surprise news that Jonathan Stephens is quitting as Permanent Secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport after seven years, allegedly having been pushed out of the department. There are also rumours that Robert Devereux, head of the Department for Work and Pensions, may be eased out after DwP's problems. Without realising it, we are drifting towards an American-style system of politically selected civil servants.
CASH FOR VISAS
The Free Enterprise Group will today propose that visas to work in Britain should be sold to the highest bidder to ensure that only those able to contribute to the economy would be able to move. They will also argue for tax breaks for utility companies, banks and transport operators to encourage competition.
TWEETS AND TWITS
Robert Halfon is happy with Labour's new announcement:
@halfon4harlowMP: Labour done Tories huge favour by announcing end to universal benefits.Now easier for Tories to stop handouts to rich&stop Lab scare stories
In the Telegraph
In the Telegraph
Boris Johnson - 'A project that stands tall with Everest? Look down'
Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan - A new dawn for Parliament?
Telegraph View - No longer a scandal waiting to happen
Best of the rest
Grant Shapps on ConHome - We're getting the big decisions right - and Miliband has nothing to offer
Tim Montgomerie in The Times (£) - Britain has been nuked. Should we hit back?
Michael Bloomberg in The Guardian - Gay marriage: It's only fair
John Browne in the FT (£) - Why I'm voting for gay marriage
08:30 London: Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude unveils annual Government savings for 2012/13.
09:30 London: Bank of England publishes first quarter figures on its Funding for Lending scheme.
09:30 London: Shadow chancellor Ed Balls makes a speech on the UK economy. A Q&A will follow. Thomson Reuters, The Thomson Reuters Building, 30 South Colonnade.