Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Focus on cost of living..

Good morning. Nick Clegg will close the Lib Dem conference today. It will be a rehearsal of his general election campaign, as Mr Clegg urges the Lib Dems to be proud of their achievements and to celebrate becoming "a party of government". Mr Clegg will try and take ownership for the recent economic good news, saying "This recovery wouldn't be happening without us." We already know a main announcement from his speech -free school meals for all children in reception, year one and year two, at a cost of £600 million. It is a policy that, although certain to attract a hearty applause today, has already been criticised on the grounds that the poorest students are already eligible for free school meals. The Mail asks, "But how on earth in austerity Britain can we afford Mr Clegg's giveaway?"
The free school meal policy will be significant in the build-up to the next election. It will come into effect in September next year, allowing the Government to trumpet it as immediate action on the cost of living: families will save an average of £437 per child per year. The risk for the Conservatives is that - as with raising the income tax threshold - the Lib Dems could claim credit for being more in tune with cost-of-living concerns. Robert Halfon led the campaign to make those studying at Further Education colleges eligible for free school meals - a Backbench Business debate was scheduled for October 10, with 57 of the 75 signatures from Conservatives. Mr Halfon has written for ConHome that, "The policy on free school meals would not have happened without Michael Gove. It is up to all of, as Conservatives, to own this policy and shout about it from the rooftops."
In return for granting the Lib Dems the policy of free school meals, the Conservatives will be free to announce tax breaks for marriage at their own conference. The Lib Dems will then abstain on the marriage tax break vote, allowing them to oppose it in the 2015 election campaign. For many Tory footsoldiers exasperated by Dave's leadership, the tax breaks will be too late - especially as the support to marriage will be more symbolic than substantive - but it is a sign that the Conservative inner circle are listening to the concerns of the grassroots. Dave's relationship with the grassroots may not be quite as bad as feared, with party membership 134,000 - many feared it was under 100,000 - according to ConHome.
As for the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg certainly isn't listening to Lord Oakeshott. The early conference departure of Lord Oakeshott - who was due to appear at a fringe event yesterday but had already gone to London - showed the frustrations of the peer who can always be relied upon to diss Nick. But while there was no sign of Lord Oakeshott, Jeremy Browne was there for all to see: walking with his ministerial red box in Paddington on Google Street Map. Mr Browne felt "unnerved".
The bad news for any of you who've had enough, already, of the debate about Scottish independence is it's barely begun: there's still a year to go, with the Unionist lead appearing solid. Or perhaps not: the FT suggest that, with a recent ICM poll showing support for independence if voters could be assured that it would make them £500 better off, there is still all to play for. They highlight "the importance of a Scottish government white paper on independence – expected to be published in the next few months – intended to show how an independent Scotland could prosper outside the UK." We argue that the focus on the referendum "has meant that many pressing problems – the economy, education, infrastructure – have been neglected" and that more Scottish businessmen should get off the fence to ensure the Union's survival. To The Times, "Without a more positive case being coherently made, Scottish wariness of going it alone is wholly understandable."
Speaking to Today this morning, Alistair Darling said that Alex Salmond "doesn’t want to debate with me." He also denied that the campaign against independence was negative - "being negative, as I’ve said before, is asking Alex Salmond a question to which he doesn’t know the answer; in relation to currency, they can’t tell us – because they can’t guarantee to keep the pound – what their fall-back position is".
Nick Clegg may seem more comfortable working with the Conservatives than Labour but he emphasised yesterday that he is not ruling out a coalition with Ed Miliband after 2015. “If the British people say that the most legitimate outcome of the next general election would be a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition, of course I would be prepared to play my part in that.” But what would that mean for the party? Mary Riddell warns that "Talk of equidistance is a euphemism for the Lib Dems’ dangerous new role as electoral ballast to whichever main party limps ahead."  Daniel Finkelstein writes that it is the Conservatives that provide "Nick Clegg’s party definition as a centre party." The leadership is "as far away as ever in persuading activists to adopt a reforming market liberalism that might challenge the Left in the same way their agenda has restrained the Right" - which is why the Lib Dems could lose their identity in a coalition with Labour.
Bad news for Labour: austerity is back in vogue. A new poll in The Sunfound that more voters now support austerity cuts than oppose them for the first time in three years. A year ago austerity cuts were opposed 53-29. The poll will intensify worries among Ed Miliband's advisers that their economic arguments are looking more and more like the Costa Concordia - stuck on the rocks and crumpled. 
Labour's policy review resembles a pregnant panda - a long time in the making but no-one  is quite sure if there is anything in there. That's the verdict of former home secretary Jacqui Smith, who writes for the New Labour pressure group Progress that "some eye-catching policies need to break out of the conference centre and resonate more widely... Ed Miliband has the tough job of following last year's brilliant speech with the next instalment fleshing out his character and beliefs and telling people about the country he wants to lead and how Labour can deliver it." Ed will be glad to know she isn't coming to Brighton

We all know the dangers of putting on a few pounds at conference. But it doesn't have to be that way. On the Tuesday morning of each party conference, at 7.30am, members of the Open Road team will be running 5k to raise money for this JDRF, the type one diabetes charity. Everyone from MPs to journalists, lobbyists to party members is invited to come and join – £10 will be donated we for each runner that turns up. You can express your interest by emailing
Stella Creasy sounds in no mood to improve relations with the Lib Dems:
@stellacreasy: never forget #sharkstoppers its been Lib Dem ministers all along who've blocked progress on tackling legal loan sharking #daveylambswinson 
In the Telegraph 
Benedict Brogan - What Tories are planning to stop another Coalition – and what David Cameron might do to fix one
Telegraph View - United we must stand
Best of the rest
Daniel Finkelstein in the Times - If the Lib Dems join Miliband, they’re dead
Martin Wolf in the Financial Times - We still live in Lehman's shadow
Liberal Democrat Conference highlights:
0900: Pensions and Welfare Q and A with Steve Webb
1030: Environment Q and A with Ed Davey 

1430: Nick Clegg speech