Thursday, 19 September 2013

The caravan moves on..

Good morning. The caravan has moved on from Glasgow (what a grim conference venue that was). Brighton and Labour are next, already the papers are beginning to fill with what will be a lot of speculation about the state of Ed. Our attention has shifted, but before we forget the Lib Dems altogether, what's the verdict? Nick Clegg looked chipper at the back of the BA flight to Heathrow: his speech was, in party terms, a success. The headlines aren't too bad either. His free school meals idea gets plenty of coverage (although we slate it as a "Brownite attempt to bribe the voters with their own money" and the FT are also very sceptical). There's a comprehensive shredding in the Mail - its leader lays in to the Madame Fifi of British politics with particular vim this morning. I suspect the Lib Dem high command will be congratulating itself though for completing a conference in which the leadership saw off rather febly opposition, Vince Cable was reduced - in the words of one Cabinet minister to me - to the state of "an extinct volcano", and Mr Clegg got out his message that he aims to stay in power and ready to make a deal as the man who commands the centre. I blogged afterwards on the risk this represents, but Mr Clegg's overall success, and evident self-confidence puts pressure on Ed Miliband and David Cameron to deliver the same. Mr Clegg cemented his position as the chief of his tribe - and "he even did an impression of David Cameron's plummy voice", as Michael Deacon writes. To Quentin Letts, "Seldom would you describe a dish of bacon as being under-salted. Similarly, no Clegg conference speech is ever short on self-satisfaction, but this one really was sticky, humid, marinated with self-satisfaction. Conceit leaked from every hinge and join."
Really, Mr Clegg's speech refined the message he has given at the past three conferences - urging the Lib Dems to embrace being a party of government, and positioning the party as anchored in the centre rather than drifting off to the left. Indeed, to the Guardian, "Lib Dems are to be an anchor on the larger parties, a perpetual Goldilocks – although his centre position was unmistakably to the right." Unlike in previous years, the mood in the conference hall was of a party with their leader, and hungry for power. Judging the speech's wider impact is somewhat harder. One answer is provided by impactSocial, who analysed over 7,000 tweets about the Lib Dem conference yesterday. The results showed that Nick Clegg’s key note speech didn’t go down very well on Twitter. 49 per cent of tweets were negative in sentiment and only 8 per cent of the mentions captured were positive. But Lib Dems would retort that the speech was aimed at their "market" - the quarter of the electorate who say they would consider voting for the party. Given that this is made up of a disproportionate number of young middle-class professionals, the free school meal policy certainly makes electoral sense.

Tory MPs gather for an away day at the Heythrop Park Crowne Plaza in Chipping Norton at 9.30 this morning. It's an outing that has everything: addresses from Dave and other top dogs from his team, a bucolic setting, and a quiz night hosted by Michael Gove. The party is picking up the bill but don't fret: as a local MP Mr Cameron was, I gather, able to secure a useful discount. Team Dave are particularly pleased about the turnout. They reckon 220-230 of their 300-odd MPs will turn up, which isn't bad as these things go but the critics will of course ask whether a PM who commands his side shouldn't count on a better effort. It isn't as if those considered to be among the irreconcilables are boycotting the event en masse: Adam Afriye, Sarah Wollaston, Peter Bone will all be there I'm told. Let's wait till we get the attendance list later, and reports from the scene (a number of Fleet Street's finest have, by pure coincidence, checked in to the same hotel).
Mr Cameron will address the MPs on the political situation, the Tory message for the election campaign to come, with lots about being on the side of hard working people, the pitfalls ahead, etc. This is the latest iteration of his efforts to give his backbenchers a sense of involvement. He's worked out that informal chats over warm sauvignon in the No10 flat didn't do it. A more structured format works better.
The MPs will be addressed by Lynton Crosby on what they do next. He'll tell them that the party is extending the number of seats it is targetting in its 40-40 strategy, with more Labour and Lib Dem-held seats getting focused effort. Then Craig Oliver will set out his impressions of a changed media landscape drive by the speed of Twitter and what the Tories can do to keep up. There will be a policy session with Cabinet ministers including Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and George Osborne, after which the MPs will break into small groups to distill their views. Keep an eye on Michael Fabricant's tweets: he's started already this morning and may provide the odd snippet from inside, notably on any triumphs of away-day fashion. There's scope for mockery of course, but if the persistent criticism from MPs is that Mr Cameron is bad at keeping in touch with colleagues, then he can hardly be blamed for trying. Yesterday's figures on falling Tory membership underscore the need to address the issue of member engagement in the digital age.  
With the Funding for Lending and Help to Buy schemes, George Osborne has often been accused of fuelling a housing bubble. But Mr Osborne says otherwise, telling the Institute of Directors' annual conference in London that they are "not weapons of mass destruction but tools to help people get on the housing ladder." 
Once it was Nick Clegg who the commentariat attacked. No longer - indeed, Ed's team reckon that the recent praise for Nick from the conservative-leaning press amounts to a tacit acknowledgement that Nick offers Dave his only real chance of a second term in No 10. The press has been brutal to Ed Miliband for several months, Labour will be cheered to read Peter Oborne's defence of their man (indeed, several Labour MPs have already tweeted the piece). Ed is the man who took on Murdoch, "refused to go weak at the knees when meeting billionaires", took on the trade unions and then rejected "David Cameron’s foolish suggestion three weeks ago that Britain should take part in an impetuous military attack on Syria". But Ed hasn't been getting any credit for it: the latest YouGov poll has the Conservatives and Labour level on 36 points each, the Tories' highest rating since before the omnishambles budget. At least he has his milions: there are at least seven millionaires in the Shadow Cabinet, as The Sun reports.
There's also an interesting piece by Stella Creasy, regarded as a rising star not lacking in personal ambition, in The New Statesman. Ms Creasy calls for the party to ensure schools and hospitals sereve the interests of consumers rather than staff and says Labour's emphasis should be on "putting members of the public in charge of their own destiny so we can prevent problems rather than just mitigating them.” With plenty of rumours about the future of Stephen Twigg, Ms Creasy warns that Labour's "Education policy has been defined by an obsession with who is running schools, when our children need preparation for a digital economy where “jobs for life” no longer exist.” So Ed's speech, now only five days away, looms large, and Rafael Behr reports that it will be "meaty" - and about "things Labour will definitely do if elected, signalling an end to the phase of talking about things the party fantasises about doing today but can’t promise to do tomorrow."
It's a year to the day since Andrew Mitchell tried to cycle out of the main gates at Downing Street and was told to use a side gate. And still the investigation into the affair rumbles on. As we argue, the suggestion that an official police log may have been fabricated "strikes at the very heart of the justice system: if the police could treat a Cabinet minister in such a way, what would stop them doing the same to anyone else?" The sympathy for Mr Mitchell's flight extends way beyond the Conservative Party. Jack Straw has written a letter to Theresa May warning that the length of the investigation is taking a “toll” on Mr Mitchell and “It’s high time these delays were brought to an end.”
Independence could cost Scotland £5.9 billion. That's the warning from the IFS who, because of falling North Sea oil and gas revenues, say that an independent Scotland would have to cut spending by £2.5 billion in the first two years of its existence and say that Scottish households could also face £3.4 billion in extra taxes after independence. While Scottish universities are currently allowed to discriminate against English students by charging fees, EU law would prevent them from doing so if England gained independence.  
Forcing children to wear the burka to school is “completely wrong”,according to Boris. A number of secondary schools have forced children as young as 11 to wear the full covering when outside school.   
Eric Pickles has fun customising his ring tones - when the Brentwood Gazette calls his phone ring to the tune of Sousa’s Washington Post March, Eurosceptics are greeted by the Ode to Joy, and Bring Me Sunshine means that Vince is calling, as The Times diary reports. Worse, Mr Pickles often forgets to turn his phone off during Tuesday morning Cabinet meetings, leading the PM to ask “What does the Brentwood Gazette want now?” as he heard Pickles' phone go off again.
Rob Wilson isn't changing his mind:
@RobWilson_RDG: I must agree with Peter Oborne, Ed Miliband is proving a great leader of the Opposition.....for us Conservatives :) 
In the Telegraph 
Peter Oborne - Ed Miliband is proving himself to be a brave and adroit leader
Best of the rest
Stelle Creasy in The New Statesman - The bright side manifesto
Julian Priestley in the Guardian - Why Labour must rule out an EU referendum now
Financial Times leader - Clegg’s handout is no free lunch 
8.45am Jeremy Hunt to outline new approach to turn around NHS hospitals in special measures. Dept of Health.

9.30am Council of Mortgage Lenders releases its lending estimate for August.

9.30am Retail sales figures for August are published by the Office for National Statistics.

9.30am Tory away day begins in Chipping Norton