Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Osborne v Ball..

Good morning. Big moment for Labour and Ed Balls this morning. The Shadow Chancellor has changed his line to reflect the reality of economic recovery. In an article for the Guardian he welcomes the return to growth. Yes, that's right. Mr Balls acknowledges that the crisis is over and Britain is back on track. It's a grudging point ("after three years of stagnation any growth is better than no growth"), and he layers it with caveats about the strength of the recovery, the risks of disruption, and his demands for more infrastructure spending and tax rises for the wealthy. What matters though is that Mr Balls has accepted that the economic collapse and return to recession he was banking on haven't materialised. Labour policy - his policy - was predicated on George Osborne's failure. It wasn't that he wanted Britain to fail, of course, rather that to succeed politically he needed proof that - as he kept saying - austerity was choking off growth. To judge by the OECD's revised estimate, it's done the opposite and helped it along nicely.
The summer muttering about Ed Miliband reflected complaints about the party's misjudged economic policy. Mr Balls is a smart operator and can see the grounds shifting around him. In three weeks he has to present his party with a credible answer to recovery and Tory economic optimism. This morning he's started turning the supertanker. Hence his warning about an "unsustainable recovery" that the Guardian has picked up on. Well, yes. Mr Osborne has long said that he wouldn't notice grass shoots until they were five feet high. He might say the same about Labour judgements on the economy. Things must be going well for the Chancellor if Mr Balls's central complaint is that growth is too strong. The Balls climbdown appears to be tactical. It's not clear that there is a change of economic strategy behind him. But Mr Osborne will bank it. And so will Ed Miliband. He has suffered from complaints that he trusted Mr Balls to bet on things going wrong for the economy. Now that Mr Balls admits they haven't, the balance of power has shifted from shadow chancellor to Labour leader. There are plenty around Mr Miliband who will note this moment with quiet satisfaction.
Sam Coates has an interesting piece in The Times (£) on the split between William Hague and George Osborne over Syria. While Mr Hague wanted to avoid closing down future options, Mr Osborne's "instinct was to “bury the issue in a box”, ruling out military action, believing a vote unwinnable." The approaches of the two on the Sunday talk showsreflected these differing attitudes. Dave has played a balancing act in response - "In the past 36 hours, Downing Street has shimmied between public support for the Chancellor while agreeing with the Foreign Secretary in private — quite an achievement", as Sam Coates notes - but the disagreement isn't going to go away. Mr Hague is also frustrated at the manner in which he was cut out of Cameron's consultations with Obama at the beginning of last week, and then not listened to on the difficulty of securing support, despite holding a pro-intervention position for months. In the past few days there has been a lot of speculation that Mr Hague effectively went to ground after the vote because he was furious at the hit to his credibility, though he was present at yesterday's Foreign and Commonwealth Office Questions. Sticking with the Tories, the Guardian notes that nine Conservative MPs who did not vote for the Government motion received hospitality from the Assad regime over the previous decade. As for the mysterious case of the National Security Council member who didn't vote, Justine Greening's claims that she was discussing Rwanda in a soundproofed room when the bell was called isn't cutting much ice with her colleagues. 
Still it's not only the Tories who face problems on Syria. David Miliband has started life as president of the International Rescue Committee but he is still offering his brother advice on what to do. David writes for the FT (£) that engagement in Syria is "increasingly necessary" even as it is "decreasing in popularity" - including, it would seem, with his brother. If there was another vote, it would expose the reality that Labour is at least as divided as the Conservatives on whether to intervene.  
Whatever Ed would do, to Mary Riddell, Dave's anger towards Ed over Syria raises wider questions about the Cameron Project: "A former insider at No 10 likens the outburst to Mr Brown’s camp denouncing the first sign of dissatisfaction by David Miliband as a traitor’s handiwork. “It’s the moment when the centre loses control,” says this source. “There are parallels between Cameron now and Gordon before the economic crisis. What is he for? What does he want to achieve?” "   
Thank all those who took the trouble to email or tweet 'welcome back' messages to mark the return of the morning briefing. Fortified by lashings of rosé, Tim Wigmore and I are refreshed for the new season. As ever, we welcome any feedback.
Andrew Lansley faced a difficult day in the Commons yesterday, defending the Government's lobbying bill from Labour's accusations that it represented a "sinister gag on democratic debate". It wasn't only Labour who raised fears - the Electoral Commission said it had "significant concerns", a view echoed by rightwing groups including the Taxpayers' Alliance, while Douglas Carswell wrote that "The Lobbying Bill is a flawed piece of legislation that swims against the technological tide." The Government faces pressure from backbenchers to make amendments before the bill returns to the Commons for its committee stage next week. 
Lord Ashcroft may rarely want to toast the Tories, but he now has plenty to choose from if he changes his mind. Lord Ashcroft has bought a Kent "turnip patch" that was transformed into a vineyard for £7m, making him one of the country's largest producers of champagne-style wines, as the Guardian reports
Computers in Parliament logged on to 300,000 porn websites in a year,reports the Mail. MPs, peers and their staff were found to visit a total of over 800 porn sites a day, peaking at 115,000 attempts to access it last November. Staff have said the list includes pop-ups. 
Policy Exchange, which has strong links with Dave and his team, are studying whether the minimum wage could be increased without leading companies to shed jobs. The Indy reports that firms could be encouraged to raise it by being offered lower national insurance payments in return, and supporters include Jo Johnson and Oliver Letwin.
The schools are back this week - but there aren't enough places. The Local Government Association claims that there will be inadequate primary school capacity in half of all school districts within two years. The blame game has already begun. We argue that only radical measures will do - like allowing firms to build state schools that they can run for profit. To The Times (£), "government and local authorities still need to form a strategic partnership in deciding the raw questions of what will be needed where, and how it will be provided." Fiona Millar says in the Guardian that "parents in hard-pressed areas would understandably ask why money was being spent on extra free school places in areas where there were already vacancies." Whether Labour can mount a coherent attack on the Coalition over the lack of capacity - and get a rare victory over Michael Gove - remains far from clear.
Another day, and another big name comes out to question HS2. Sir Nick Macpherson, the Treasury's most senior civil servant, told the Treasury select committee that there is "no blank cheque" for HS2 and that further problems would leave the Government not to "tinker around the edges" but to "reassess" the project entirely, as the FT (£) reports. The whispers are that the Treasury think a change of government in 2015 could lead to the whole project being scrapped. 
Nick De Bois is having trouble with his teeth:
@nickdebois:Should not have had that wine gum yesterday-now at dentist- crown replacement? - not happy 
In the Telegraph 
Best of the rest 
Daniel Finkelstein in The Times (£) - 'Lessons from Iraq' are not lessons at all
Matthew Norman in The Independent - Can't get your members through? Try effing and blinding
David Miliband in The Financial Times (£) - Syria is following the same script as Afghanistan 
12:00 London: PMQs returns

14:30 London: Vince Cable speaks to the Scottish Affairs Committee about the economic effects of a single domestic market