Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Labour may regret games on HS2..

Good morning. It's one of those rolling on the floor, laughing out loud mornings if you trouble to read the accounts of Labour's position on HS2. The Guardian, under the headline "Labour will support HS2 - if the price is right", says Ed Miliband has asked Andrew Adonis, its top Rail Lord, to advise him on how Labour can back the project. And it says that those around Ed say the move is a sign of his "determination not to play games with the national interest". So what were the last few weeks about then, if not messing around with a matter of national importance? Labour's idea is to put pressure on Sir David Higgins to bring down the cost, notably by reducing the £14.4bn contingency (though presumably the aim is not to use the contingency at all). Mr Miliband might argue that by playing the tough cop he has turned up the heat on the developers and made it easier for David Cameron in turn to demand cost cuts.
If that's the case, he may have paid a high price for giving the Government a hand - and indulging Ed Balls, who led the resistance to HS2. It's obvious from the complaints of Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham City council in a letter to Mary Creagh detailed in the Indy, that by messing around Mr Miliband has infuriated northern council leaders who looked to HS2 to help bring economic revival to their areas (eventually). Business and the City will also have noticed how the party that led from the front for HS2 has wavered for political purposes. If the argument is that Britain's long-term economic prospects need long-term decision-making, then uncertainty is to be despised and businesses are entitled to be suspicious of parties that foster it. It is right to interrogate the finances of HS2. That's what Sir David will do.
But Labour looks like it has played one of those games Mr Miliband says it opposes. The Tories certainly have been confident for days that Labour would fall into line, precisely because the political price of a U-turn on its own project was too high. But before they start to gloat at the way Mr Miliband is trying to make a virtue of calling off his rebellion, they might ask themselves why they allowed HS2's budget to spiral in the way it has - note the FT leader today which says that HS2 "still fails to justify the whopping price tag attached to the investment." There are plenty of smart folk around who will tell you that the project has suffered from a lack of political grip. Having backed it, Mr Cameron and George Osborne took insufficient interest in the management of the cost. The Treasury traditionally despises such things and perhaps quite enjoyed seeing it run away down the tracks. HS2 is a reminder of No10's serial inability to apply political grip in the long periods when an issue is not in the headlines.          

Ministers on the Privy Council will today advise the Queen to grant a Royal Charter to a new set of rules for journalists that was written by politicians and media campaigners. Sources say that Nick Clegg is expected to chair the meeting at Buckingham Palace. If you are still undecided about the whole thing, consider this: the Government refused to say yesterday who will be in the room to pass the Royal Charter today. Irony of ironies, a secret law is being used to impose greater transparency and accountability. We should know the names of the guilty men.

The anticipated smackdown of the Big Six didn't quite happen. Indeed, the biggest attack on the Big Six came not from an MP but Stephen Fitzpatrick, the managing director of a rival firm, Ovo Energy. He told MPs that he "can’t explain" the price rises being imposed because his company is buying gas at a cheaper price than in 2009 and "A significant number of the Big Six are charging the maximum price they feel they can get away with to the customers that they feel will not switch under any circumstances." As we note, he "persuasively challenged their claims to operate in a competitive market. If that were true, how were they able to stop people switching supplier by immediately offering to cut their bills? Why does the price vary so much depending on the tariff?" In the Indy,John Rentoul observes that " a people’s trial set up to vent revolutionary fervour at the expense of the energy company bosses was co-opted by the creative life-force of capitalism to sell us another product." But why didn't the actual MPs do more damage? Michael Deacon says that "Perhaps they were just taking their cue from their interim chairman, Sir Robert Smith (Lib Dem, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine), whose drowsy mumbling made him sound as if he was talking in his sleep."
Len McCluskey is nothing if not persistent. He writes in the Guardianabout the "witch-hunt" and "hysterical smear campaign"against Unite and says that its "priority is standing up for its members in the face of onslaught by powerful companies." It's not the sort of thing that will help with Labour's march on the "Suburban Mindsets" (move over Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman). Mary Riddell writes on how Labour "is targeting all its resources at a small group of voters who can swing the general election vote":100,000 inhabitants of Tory-held marginals. Not that the Conservatives will give these up without a fight: Mr Osborne wants to move his tanks on to suburban lawns and steal Labour’s thunder on low pay.
That's the message from Lord Ashcroft's latest polling, which shows that many Scots back the Conservatives on the deficit and the economy, but were put off voting for them because they believed that it's a party for "farmers and toffs". As many as 15 per cent of Scots are "Reluctant Cameroons", who support Dave's policies but just can't vote for him. But Lord Ashcroft has an uplifting message for Scottish Tories too: "If the Scots vote to keep the Union, more powers for Edinburgh could be to the party’s political advantage." You can read the full report here. Meanwhile Theresa May says that an independent Scotland would face greater security threats, as the Guardian reports. But she's certainly not fooling Alex Massie, who writes: "What is the point of this stuff? Who does Theresa May think she is persuading? Vote No to remain beneath the GCHQ umbrella! It’s pitiful stuff, frankly. How does anyone manage to live without the protections afforded by the British security services? I mean, even the Belgians. Come on."

A letter bomb was yesterday found at Stormont Castle addressed to Theresa Villiers. Staff were evacuated.  

Russia's attempts to bug No 10 with "Trojan horses" have been thwarted by security staff. Mobile phone chargers and USB drives given to the PM’s staff at the G20 summit in Russia were capable of sending data back to the Kremlin. No 10 staff have been warned not to use the "gifts", as the Mail reports.
The proposed question on Britain's EU membership may be changedbecause people aren't aware that Britain is already in the EU. James Wharton's bill suggests the referendum question: "Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?" But the Electoral Commission is concerned that this doesn't make it clear that Britain is already a member.

The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Anne Milton learns that winter is upon us:
@AnneMiltonMP: Thin coat and gloves not quite enough to keep warm on bike despite uphill most of the way home - need scarf and woolly hat too!


In the Telegraph 

Mary Riddell - Labour sets sights trained on suburbs

David Kynaston - Private schools are blocking social mobility

Douglas Carswell - As an MP, I want to vote against HS2. But I can’t

Telegraph View - The energy market is still mired in mystery

Best of the rest

Martin Wolf in The Financial Times - Bank of England’s Mark Carney places a bet on big finance

Today: Privy Council meeting to approve cross-party proposals for a Royal Charter on press regulation.
9am Boris Johnson addresses World Islamic Economic Forum.
10.30am David Laws gives evidence on constitutional implications of coalition government to Lords Constitution Committee.
12pm PMQs.

2.15pm Energy minister Michael Fallon gives evidence on energy subsidies to Commons Environmental Audit Committee.