Wednesday, 3 July 2013

HS2 consensus wanes..

Good morning. What are we to make of Peter Mandelson's devastating intervention in the high speed rail debate? Labour took to Twitter last night to say it changes nothing and the party continues to support the policy it devised. But the Prince of Mandy is an influential figure, well connected to business, and his verdict that HS2 could prove to be a "monumental mistake" will carry weight. The FT (£) speculates that Labour may be shifting its view, pointing out that Ed Balls is growing worried about the costs and Maria Eagle, who runs the brief, has raised the value for money question. 
In crude political terms, Lord Mandelson has helped Ed Miliband by putting David Cameron on the spot. The PM relied on the cross party consensus on HS2 to protect him from the wrath of the shires and the scepticism of his backbenchers. HS2 is part of his global race narrative - Britain needs cutting edge infrastructure to compete and attract investment. If Labour is wavering, even if only for electoral advantage, Mr Cameron might look isolated. A climb-down on high speed rail, even if it's in the shape of a delay or review that kicks it beyond the election, will be a signal moment. On the other hand, the PM has shown he won't be budged on issues with which he is personally identified. Like ring-fencing aid and protecting pensioner entitlements, this is one of them. But it's a sore spot, and Mandy has just poked him where it hurts.
Chris Grayling has written of the dangers posed to the Conservatives by "that nice Mr Farage". If Conservatives disillusioned by coalition stay at home or vote for Ukip in 2015, Mr Grayling warns of what an Ed Miliband premiership could look like:
The most Left-wing political leader this country has seen since Michael Foot. He and his party are in the pockets of the trade unions, and when you hear them talk it sometimes seems like a throwback to the Seventies. 
Mr Grayling's intervention marks an interesting new Conservative approach to Ukip: he is not calling supporters "swivel-eyed" but is trying to rationalise with them what the electoral repercussions would be. 
It's PMQs today and, while we might enjoy the theatrics, it's all rather predictable. So it's just as well we have our own live question session every Wednesday, starting this week with columnist of the year Peter Oborne. He'll be taking questions from 2:30 today: you can find out more here; and tweet using #askoborne to ask Peter a question. 
The question is not as ridiculous as it might appear. Dan Hodges bloggedon what shadow cabinet members had told him about Owen Jones:
“We’ve all been instructed we can’t debate Owen Jones, and we can’t criticise him. We’ve been warned attacking him would be the equivalent of friendly fire.”
One person who clearly hadn't heard the orders was Simon Danczuk. Mr Danczuk yesterday branded Jones an "1980s alternative comedian" during an exchange. You can watch it here
The row comes amid growing criticism of Labour's candidate selection process, added to by Labour seizing control of 14 of its constituency parties due to concerns about alleged attempts to manipulate selections and exert unfair influence, as reported in The Times (£). Sources close to Ed Miliband have criticised the splash as "seriously misleading", pointing out that 12 of the constituencies were placed in special measures before 2005, with Falkirk the only one in which there was concern about the role of Unite. 
Less headline-grabbing but perhaps ultimately more worrying for Labour is Peter Kellner's analysis in The Times (£) showing that support for more tax-and-spend in Britain is remarkably low, at just 13 per cent, a similar trend to the rest of Europe. As Mary Riddell writes, "Mr Miliband’s belief that Mr Cameron’s short-term fixes will ultimately be his undoing" could be overly optimistic - but, having decided to play the tortoise to Dave's hare, changing tack could be equally risky. 
Sir Jeremy Heywood has put the euphoria over last week's pain-free spending review into perspective. Sir Jeremy, speaking to an audience of civil servants, emphasised that “There is still an enormous amount of work to get that deficit down to a balanced level to get the debt/GDP level falling rather than rising” and called the cuts part of "a 20-year generational battle to beef up the economy". Sir Jeremy's intervention will add to the impression that George Osborne could have sought greater cuts at the SR, though the Chancellor will also be concerned by the the £9.6 billion in uncollected VAT returns in 2010-11, reported in The Guardian
Meanwhile, Mr Osborne has defended his involvement in the departure of Stephen Hester from RBS: “It’s the largest lender to small business in our country, so of course we’re interested in the health of the bank”, Mr Osborne said at a Times (£) event. Since Mr Hester's departure was announced, the share price of RBS has fallen by over £4 billion.
The Lib Dems are moving towards calling for some of the UK's four nuclear submarines not to be replaced after they are decommissioned, which will be put to the Lib Dem conference in September, James Landale reports. The stance - which falls short of the all-out scrapping of Trident many Lib Dems support - would make another coalition deal with the Conservatives difficult as they are adamant that a continuous at sea deterrent is the only option. 
Should MPs be able to vote on matters of war in the Commons with no experience of Afghanistan? Jessica Lee, the MP for Erewash, is unconvinced, and writes for us on the importance of Parliament's RAF scheme in informing her understanding of the Armed Forces and war itself.  
While Jeremy Hunt is today announcing a £200 levy on immigrants to pay for the NHS, Boris Johnson continues to provide evidence of his willingness to challenge Conservative Party orthodoxy. Speaking on his LCB Radio show, Boris contradicted Dave's recent claim that an amnesty for illegal immigrants would make Britain look soft. Boris said: 
We should have an amnesty... We've got people who've got in here illegally. They are not engaged with the economy and being honest with the system. 
It is a brave stance in a climate in which Nick Clegg recently said that the Lib Dems were wrong to call for an amnesty. It will cement Boris's reputation as a man not beholden to any party line, but it is a policy that will play much better in London than the country-at-large. Perhaps, as Boris also hinted at, he is thinking of running for a third term as Mayor of London after all?   
Amid the outcry over the recommendations for an increase in MPs' salaries, they could be forgiven for enjoying the news that one in four BBC managers was allowed to leave with bigger payoffs than they were entitled to and police could investigate. Rob Wilson has said that is is writing to the public spending watchdog to ask whether there was any evidence of "fraud or criminal wrongdoing" surrounding the payments. 
Diane Abbott is angry about the levy foreigners will have to pay to use the NHS:
@HacknetAbbott: What price xenophobia? Stigmatising foreigners accessing NHS creates a public health risk. 
In the Telegraph 
Best of the rest 
Peter Kellner in The Times (£) - We no longer believe the Left will look after us
Peter Mandelson in The Financial Times (£) - Second thoughts on new high-speed line 
Andrew Alexander in The Daily Mail - Nuts? The HS2 scandal is truly off the rails
Simon Jenkins in The Guardian - To rein in top pay, keep MPs poor and furious
1230 London: Lord Adonis 'Time for a new industrial policy?' event. Policy Exchange.
1830 London: President of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist speaks on taxes. IEA Hayek Memorial Lecture.