Friday, 8 November 2013

Afriye's hour?

Good morning. This Friday is less quiet than Westminster is accustomed to, with the Third Reading of James Wharton's Private Member's Bill on EU referendum. The expectation among those involved with Mr Wharton's Bill is that Mr Afriyie will rally more support than No10 might expect, but that anything less than 50 will be an embarrassment for him, and not an obstacle. The view of those involved with the legislation is that he is finished in the party. Even those voting with him because they support an early referendum on principle, resent having to support him; one staunch advocate of a referendum, who would vote for Mr Afriyie's amendment, describes it simply as "not a wise thing".
Views of Mr Afriyie among backbenchers seem to be universally uncomplimentary and in some cases downright violent. The anger voiced by Nicholas Soames was felt by many, even if some felt the attack was unwise. There is a suspicion that some of Mr Afriyie's supporters are using him to cause maximum damage to David Cameron. In Downing Street he is loathed as an untrustworthy upstart of questionable motives who is showboating, no more. But Mr Cameron will be aware that his popularity among his colleagues is built on success or the absence of it, not natural loyalty. And there is a sense from the backbenches that the operation has poorly handled the Bill. It is felt that the Conservatives have inadvertently ramped up its significance by making it a three-line whip; a "free vote" with a nudge here and a wink there may have been less destructive. There is also unhappiness about the lack of clear movement from Mr Cameron on exactly what powers he would like to reclaim from the EU in renegotiations. That the audit of Britain's relationship with the EU commissioned by William Hague last year has so far failed to produce any signs of a "shopping list" (see the FT report) only adds to the sense that Mr Cameron is "not serious" about renegotiating, and the fear is that he aims to replicate Harold Wilson's sham negotiations before the 1975 referendum.
But while today's vote may be unwelcome, it is important to get it in perspective. If Mr Afriyie's amendment is called, it should get the support of around 30 MPs, far fewer than the 81 who called for an EU referendum in the Commons vote two years ago and perhaps a sign of Dave's improved relations with his backbenches. And the more the economy improves, the less pressure he faces from his opponents. As conditions improve for the Tories, so the clamour for leadership change abates. If the economic numbers were not as good as they are, today's vote would be taking on an altogether different meaning.
Former Conservative treasurer Peter Cruddas says it would be "just and equitable" for him to get his job back after being cleared of cash-for-access allegations. Instead, Mr Cruddas complains about being fobbed off with an "embarrassing tombola prize" which reminds him of "a village fête". You can read his full email to friends who supported him here.
Labour have Iain Duncan Smith in their sights, believing that the Work and Pensions Secretary is vulnerable due to a mass of problems with Universal Credit. There is also a sense that Labour believe their welfare policy is slowly regaining credibility, and the public are more open to their position since the promotion of Rachel Reeves (even though their welfare policies are unchanged to those under Liam Byrne). Mrs Reeves attacks IDS for being "detached from reality" in a piece for Telegraph Politics, while reiterating Labour's support for the idea of Universal Credit. The Times says that the message is that politicians should be able to replace their civil servants if they are not up to the job.
Into the third year of defence cuts, Fraser Nelson writes that "The question of whether Britain is still a war-fighting nation – as opposed to a country interested only in peacekeeping – remains a painful one for the Prime Minister." Fraser says that while Philip Hammond wants to stop the cuts "when he has these conversations with the Chancellor, he is presented with polling data that shows that defence spending is not in the public’s top 10 list of concerns. These opinion polls show that 83 per cent of us have a high opinion of the Armed Forces but just 2 per cent say they’re one of their top priorities for spending. It’s an interesting insight into how this Government operates – rather than ask themselves if the military needs to be expanded, they turn to focus groups instead."
Yesterday's select committee hearing with the three heads of the security services proved rather less explosive than many had hoped. The most significant revelation was that 34 terrorist plots had been foiled since the 7/7 bombings, though Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, said there were "several thousand" extremists still in the UK. Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6 said that "our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee" and Al-Qaeda was "lapping it up" following the leaks by Edward Snowden exposed to the Guardian. Sir John also said that spies were "pretty sickened" by the multi-million pay-outs to terrorist suspects who made claims against the intelligence services. We argue that the whole exercise was "a welcome step in the effort to make the work of the agencies more open and less susceptible to caricature by conspiracy theorists." Michael Deacon was disappointed with how normal the spies all seemed.
The Spectator's parliamentarian of the year awards were won by "the glorious 15" who voted against statutory regulation of the press. But the moment was bittersweet for Tracey Crouch, who lamented that "This will blow my chances of sleeping with Hugh Grant". Other notable awards includes Robert Halfon winning campaigner of the year (his success freezing fuel duty makes him "Britain's most expensive MP", as a minister puts it); Tristram Hunt won newcomer of the year; Charlotte Leslie's persistence over the Francis Report won her the backbencher of the year award; and Michael Fallon won minister of the year. Truly, can his Cabinet call-up be postponed any longer? But perhaps most surprising was Ed Miliband winning political speech of the year. Not least to Ed himself: he hadn't kept the date free but showed his sense of humour in a video accepting the award.
Shaun Woodward, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, is stepping down as MP for St Helen's South and Whiston. Mr Woodward won the seat with a majority of more than 14,000 at the last election. His defection from the Tories to Labour in 1999 cleared the way for a new MP in Witney (not Whitney), one David Cameron. He also made butlers a political must-have.
Simon Hughes has apologised to the Commons after failing to register six donations to his local party, which totalled more than £30,000. In a statement to the House, Mr Hughes said "I take full responsibility for these failures and I apologise unreservedly". The House of Commons Standards Committee cleared him of breaking rules against lobbying.
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Chris Heaton-Harris is up to his old tricks:
@chhcalling: When transporting snails, French freight companies put an 'S' on the container so they can easily locate the S cargo.s

In the Telegraph 
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Philip Collins in The Times - It’s all hot air unless they learn from defeat
Dominic Sandbrook in The Daily Mail - So, what is it that Mr Blair has to hide?
Third Reading of James Wharton's private member's bill on EU referendum
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1.30pm Nick Clegg answers questions from Capital FM listeners.