Thursday, 5 September 2013

Universal Credit flounders..

Good morning. Iain Duncan Smith has just been on Today, giving a preview of the arguments he will use to defend the Universal Credit scheme today. The headline quotes  - "What went wrong was the Universal Credit team" and "Those charged with putting together IT did not make the correct decisions" - shows that civil servants will be blamed. Mr Duncan Smith also launched a robust defence of the scheme:  "We have the lowest number of workless households that we've ever had...It's a very important reform, and it's a reform that will both save the Government and taxpayers money."

The Universal Credit programme has suffered from “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance” and could miss its 2017 deadline for implementation. That's the verdict of the National Audit Office, who say that the Government have ignored repeated warnings about the programme. Plenty of ministers have floundered in the past attempting similarly radical overhauls; amid all the excitement about the positive effects that the Universal Credit could have, the knotty issue of implementation seems rather to have neem neglected. We can now expect a messy blame game between ministers and the civil service over what exactly has gone so wrong. The talk is that Mr Duncan Smith will have to appear in the Commons today for an Urgent Question to explain his way out of the mess. We write that it "has been dogged by unrealistic expectations, top-heavy management, poorly defined policy objectives and ludicrously ambitious timetables" and "if it is not going to work, the Government should stop it and think again". 
Syria continues to preoccupy David Cameron. He's off to the G20 and is already suffering the kind of embarrassment that drove Gordon Brown to distraction - headlines about an American snub. It's emerged that the PM will not hold any bilateral meetings with Barack Obama, which will be seen by some as proof positive that the Americans are maginalising Britain on the back of the Syria vote. Much is being made of the fact that Mr Obama will hold one-to-one talks with Francois Hollande instead. In the past No10 has been terrified of being seen to be out of favour. Under Mr Brown great efforts were made to engineer meetings with George Bush to avoid the snub charge, including one notorious impromptu one in a kitchen. In the nature of things it wouldn't be suprising if a last-minute meeting between the PM and the president were arranged, but equally the relationship between London and Washington is strong, the two men hold regular video conferences and have not been short of time together since Mr Cameron has been in No10.
The real difficulty for the PM remains a domestic, political one. There is consternation among conservatives at the sacking of Jesse Norman from the No10 policy board as punishment for missing the vote. He was told on Tuesday night, which seems a long time after the alleged crime, particularly as to my understanding No10 had indicated a willingness to let it all go and wasn't seeking to punish those - even Mr Norman - on the payroll by sacking them. As I blogged yesterday, surely now Mr Cameron will have to take similar retributive action against others who failed to support Mr Cameron. Quite why Mr Cameron has it in for Mr Norman is a mystery. By any measure the MP for Hereford is the kind of talent who should in the government, not out of it. Bafflement all around.
William Hague yesterday warned a group of backbenchers not to allow the UK to “retreat or become inward looking”, as the FT (£) reports. It's a message echoed by his interview in the Standard: “We cannot pull up the drawbridge, retreat to our island and think no harm will ever come to us. The world will be a less safe, less democratic, crueller place. I want to sound the alarm about that.” The path to isolationism may be an easy one, but it is one that Mr Hague is determined that Britain should not take, even with Dave's insistence that military action is "not on the table". Tories have also denied suggestions that Mr Hague offered to resign after the Syria vote. But Mr Hague will be pleased by reports from Germanythat Angela Merkel would make returning European Union powers to capitals a priority if she wins a third term in this month's German elections. 
When Ed Miliband announced that Labour would be recasting its relationship with the trade unions in July it received a brief surge of publicity and then... nothing happened. Yesterday's announcement by GMB that they were cutting their support for the party by £1.05 million made things all rather more real; that Labour received only a few hours' notice reflects the union's anger at Labour. The Mirror splashes on "Ed's £9m in the red" - reflecting what would happen if all 15 affiliated trade unions followed GMB's lead. For a party already £8.7 million in debt, this threatens to be very costly indeed; Dan Hodges writes that, "A party official told me the funding crisis had become so great managers had expressed the hope that the Co-op bank – which has extended millions in loans to Labour – would go bust, so their debts could be written off." Tom Watson blogs that he fears for the future of his party - "If this is the beginning of the end of that historic link, it is a very serious development that threatens a pillar of our democracy" - and has pledged to "fight very hard to retain the fundamental link between the party and Labour movement."  
And the bad news for Ed doesn't end there. David Aaronovitch in The Times (£) describes his apparent U-turn over supporting the Government's motion on Syria a being in keeping with Miliband's wider personality: "politically he is not a presence at all, he is an absence. He is Oedipal Ed, the negator of the unpopular actions of the fathers; the anti-Blair, the non-Brown. His technique for victory to is follow behind the leader, wait for a slip-up and exploit his or her mistakes." The doubts over Ed - reflected in the YouGov poll in which only two per cent describe him as a "natural leader" - continue to provide CCHQ with cheer. And they explain why, as Martin Kettle writes in The Guardian, he should "prepare for the most sustained character assassination attempt in British politics since the days of Neil Kinnock." 
A new National Infrastructure Commission charged with evaluating the UK’s needs 25 to 30 years out - and taken the decisions out of Government's hands - should be created, according to a new report from Sir John Armitt which is released today. The report was commissioned by Ed Balls, who has said that the Government have "ducked and delayed the vital decisions" on national infrastructure and wants the coalition to work with Labour to implement Sir John's report. Now growth has returned, Labour are refining their economic critique.
Chris Grayling will tody unveil a new plan to save £220 million a year. Legal aid will be cut for prisoners, foreigners and the wealthy - defined as those with £3,000 in the bank each month after essential bills - and moves made to move pre-trial hearings to e-mail or video-link, as The Times (£) reports. The new deal is the result of 14 weeks of consultation with the Law Society for England and Wales.
Liam Byrne has a proposal on Universal Credit:
@LiamByrneMP: Now time for David Cameron and IDS swallow their pride and agree to the cross party talks we proposed in the summer. #UniversalCredit 
In the Telegraph 
Telegraph View - Good work at risk
Best of the rest 
David Aaronovitch in The Times (£) - Ed Miliband is no leader. He is a vulture
Today, London: William Hague to meet Syrian National Coalition president Ahmed Asi Al Jarba.
Backbench business debates on - i) high cost credit, ii) North East Independent Economic Review report.
1030 London: Michael Gove speech on "The Importance of Teaching". 10 Storey's Gate
1200 London: Bank of England decision on interest rates and quantitative easing.