Monday, 16 September 2013

Lib Dems in rude health..

Ben Brogan's morning briefing:

Breaking news: Nick Clegg has been speaking on the Today programme. 
Mr Clegg claimed to be relaxed about Vince Cable's absence from today's debate on the economy: "I don't run a bootcamp, I don't tell people when they have to turn up to a meeting".
The Lib Dem leader positioned his party as tax reformers, saying "We need to reduce taxes on work and enterprise, and make sure tax is placed more fairly on land and wealth" and said that increasing the income tax threshold was one of his proudest achievements in government. He also downplayed concerns about the Help to Buy scheme, and said that "Our fundamental problem is that we just don't build enough new homes."
Mr Clegg was also positive about the party's future: "The Liberal Democrats are in rude health, we lost public support but our membership figures are now stabilising." 
Good morning. It's a crucial day in Glasgow, with the Liberal Democrat conference voting in a debate on the economy. Essentially, the floor will vote on whether or not they endorse the coalition's economic policy to eliminate the structural deficit by 2018, with the left-leaning Social Liberal Forum having tabled an amendment calling on the plan to be "rebalanced" with more focus on employment and growth. It's an important test of Nick Clegg's credibility.
As I wrote yesterday, Mr Clegg's leadership is under no threat. But perhaps his vision of what he wants the Lib Dems to become - "the third party of government" and one with no place for self-indulgent protest - is. It's notable that Mr Clegg has volunteered to speak in the debate, showing himself, in the tradition of Mr Tony, to be a leader willing to pick a fight with his party. And he will not be overly impressed with reports that Vince Cable won't turn up to vote with his leader in today's debate, or could even vote against. A spokesman for Mr Cable was elusive, saying only that "there are aspects of it that could be improved, drawing on the amendments." Vince has already differentiated himself from Osbornonomics with his suggestions that the Government should abandon the Help to Buy scheme. No wonder colleagues are getting irritated, with a Lib Dem minister asking: "How are we supposed to persuade people that we deserve credit for economic policies that are finally starting to deliver when we have a senior minister going around playing to the left-wing gallery by objecting to those same policies?" Mr Cable's speech today will be a reminder of his former links to Labour, with his calls to increase the minimum wage, launch a clampdown on "rogue" company directors and for a public consultation on employers using zero-hour contracts. But the tensions between Mr Cable and the "Cleggites" is getting increasingly hard to disguise - the Mail call it a "Civil War" and Mr Cable is barely on speaking terms with Danny Alexander,reports the Mirror. Lurking in the back of all Lib Dem minds is the thought of another hung parliament. It's increasingly obvious that, in the event of either Labour or the Conservatives being viable partners in coalition, the wishes of the party membership - more inclined to Labour - would be very different to the Cleggites more comfortable in Tory company.
One optimist about the party's future is Chris Huhne, who writes in the Guardian about "What Nick Clegg can learn from François Mitterrand". The message is: stay positive because, "If the Liberal Democrats hold their nerve, they will do better than most people think at the next election and may well be in the next government." Mr Huhne also suggests that the Lib Dems propose "free tuition fees for state school students who win three As at A-level." We argue that "the Liberal Democrats, like their leader, remain a paradox – and contradiction is not an attractive quality when the economic stakes are so high", while Boris Johnson warns Mr Clegg of the dangers of being seen to be an "invincible loser". To The Times (£), the Lib Dems' best hope lies in combining the "radical centre" with being "as good a government as possible".      
Home Office minister Jeremy Browne has spoken of his concerns about young women having the veil “imposed” on them. Mr Browne said: “I think this is a good topic for national debate. People of liberal instincts will have competing notions of how to protect and promote freedom of choice.” This is clearly an explosive issue, and everyone is very nervous, but equally ministers are uneasy about the court case in which woman was allowed to appear veiled in dock, and unhappy with the way in which Birmingham Metropolitan College gave way after protests when they briefly issued a ban on full-face veils. Tories will be surprised to find a Lib Dem leading the charge, but David Cameron opened the way for a debate last week when his spokesman said that he would be happy with a ban at his children's school on the basis of school autonomy. This is a bold intervention from Mr Browne, especially at the Lib Dem conference. Expect Tories to weigh in behind Dr Sarah Wollaston who wrote for The Telegraph , saying that it was time for politicians to "set clear national guidance" and that “It would be a perverse distortion of freedom if we knowingly allowed the restriction of communication in the very schools and colleges which should be equipping girls with skills for the modern world.” It may be that we soon hear from Theresa May on the issue. The PM will want to avoid appearing authoritarian or illiberal but will be mindful of Ukip and the electoral potential of focussing on the issue.
One quietly significant development in the Lib Dem conference is that, for the first time, delegates have voted in favour of supporting nuclear power, as the FT (£) reports. It was a victory for Ed Davey, who argued that nuclear power could help to reduce the cost of energy bills, and for those Lib Dems who want to prioritise cost-of-living issues over green ones.
George Osborne's "shares for rights" scheme - announced at last year's Tory conference - continues to generate negative press, with the FT (£)reporting that is inadvertently "helping to cut executive tax bills in the private equity industry." Managers of Whitworths' senior management team have been offered equity stakes which, if sold at a profit, will be exempt from capital gains tax. 
It is conceivable that the 370,000 Englishmen in Scotland could yet be decisive in next year's referendum on Scottish independence - a year away on Wednesday. But how will the English vote? Neil Tweedie investigates - and you might be surprised.
Dave and Nick have asked Sir Jeremy Heywood to examine the coalition’s strategy to tackle youth unemployment. It amounts to a tacit admission that the Youth Contract - Mr Clegg's flagship scheme launched in 2011 - has not worked, as the FT (£) notes. 
Tom Harris isn't impressed by Lib Dem boasts of taming the Tories:
@TomHarrisMP: See LibDem ministers dishing the dirt on their fellow Tory ministers? Yeah, well, they'll do exactly the same to Labour, given the chance. 
In the Telegraph 
Boris Johnson - Condescending Lord Clegg, the invincible loser of British politics

Best of the rest 

Chris Huhne in the Guardian - What Nick Clegg can learn from François Mitterrand

Times (£) leader - The Radical Centre 
Liberal Democrat Conference highlights:
10:00: Economy debate
11:30: David Laws Q and A
12:30: Vince Cable speech
14:45: Nick Clegg Q and A
15:30: Policy paper on fairer taxes

17:15: Policy paper on housing benefit