Saturday, 21 December 2013

A fracking revolution?

Could fracking do for the 2010s what North Sea oil did for the 1980s? The question will be asked after the release of a Government-commissioned report by consultancy Amec, showing that fracking could take place across more than half of Britain. Ministers said they would offer energy companies the chance for rights to drill 2,880 wells across more than 37,000 square miles, stretching from central Scotland to the south coast. Every English county except Cornwall could have shale gas exploration. At its peak, fracking could create 32,000 jobs. Michael Fallon's claim that shale was “an exciting prospect, which could bring growth, jobs and energy security” is hard to dispute. Of course, it's not as simple as that. We have already seen the uproar in the village of Balcombe, West Sussex. Fracking areas could face 50 lorry journeys every day for three years. For many communities, the promise of up to £100,000 in benefits by shale gas companies during initial exploration, and then a one per cent share of the revenues if fracking succeeds and gas is produced, will not be enough. Still, for all the political difficulty, today's news will vindicate the Government's enthusiasm to get fracking. It's true that the effects won't be noticed before the next election - but the positive effects of fracking on energy prices could still take the sting out of Labour's pledge of an energy price freeze. Interesting times.
It's the last PMQs of the year today, and that means that Tim Wigmore and I will also be taking a well-earned (mostly) break from the Morning Briefing. We'll be back, newly fortified, on January 6. Our number of subscribers continues to grow - thank you for your continued support and many kind messages. As ever, we welcome any comments on how to make the briefing better. Happy Christmas to all. 
Changes to rules on EU citizens claiming out-of-benefits are being rushed forward in Parliament to start on January 1. David Cameron said that the move sent a "clear message that whilst Britain is very much open for business, we will not welcome people who don’t want to contribute." But, under Brussels law, residents of one country are already not allowed to claim benefits in another country for their first three months they are there. Nervous Tory backbenchers will be pleased. But the question still has to be asked: why has action on Bulgarian and Romanian immigration so late in the day? The Government has known about the lifting of restriction controls since it took office.
There's a lot of fallout to the Davies Commission's Interim Report. Boris told Dave that he should stop “pussyfooting and fannying around” over airport expansion. Zac Goldsmith reiterated his pledge to force a by-election if the Conservatives backtrack on their 2010 manifesto: "If my party changes its position on Heathrow expansion – the ‘no ifs, no buts, there will be no third runway’ position – if that changes, then yes, I’m obliged to trigger a by-election.” It shows the political difficulty for Mr Cameron - and, when the full report is published next summer, there will be nowhere to hide. One possibility is that the Tories will change their stance in their next manifesto, but not before, though MPs like Mr Goldsmith and Justine Greening  would still find this deeply troubling.Allister Heath says that what's at stake is nothing less than keeping air travel "affordable to all". Michael O'Leary urges "David Cameron and his Government to grasp this nettle, and remove the dead hand of political dither. Only then will the state-imposed constraints that limit consumer choice and maintain artificially high air fares be ended".
Boris Johnson was on typically fine form speaking at a lunch of the Parliamentary Press Gallery yesterday. It seems like Boris isn't going to stand for Parliament in 2015 after all; when asked the question, he said “No - because I have got a huge amount of work to do and I can’t see how I could. I have got to go on and deliver a colossal amount of stuff in London.” So there we have it. Sort of. Boris was less clear when asked if he could become an MP after finishing his second term as Mayor in 2016: “What happens after two and a half years of being mayor, something will crop up". Boris also said - and what the Lib Dems make of this is very unclear - that he was "almost certain" that the top rate of income tax would be cut before the election.


Sajid Javid, the rising star of the Treasury, has popped up with an unwelcome warning. Mr Javid admits to the FT that, despite the new banking reform bill, which receives Royal Assent today, “I don’t think any minister can sit here and say that now, or in the future, the state can never have any future involvement in the resolution of a bank." Mr Javid, who was the youngest ever Vice-President at Chase Manhattan, also dared to defend bankers: “The ones I have worked with and had experience of, I would say they put their customers first.” A favourite of George Osborne, Mr Javed could find himself in the Cabinet before this Parliament has finished.

A poll to give Tories some Christmas cheer. A ComRes survey for The Indy finds that 41 per cent of the public say that growth is their economic priority - compared with only 25 per cent who say ensuring wages rises higher than prices - that's the "cost-of-living". There's an underlying generation gap in the findings: 33 per cent of 18-34 year-olds say wages should be the top priority, compared to only 18 per cent of those aged 55 and over. In a sense, this offers further vindication for the Tories' "grown-up" approach - because the old are so much more likely to vote.
Nick Clegg is nothing if not persistent. He reiterates his support for House of Lords reform in today's Mirror, writing that the House of Lords needs to be "dragged into the 21st century" and should be replaced by an elected chamber. Mr Clegg says that "At the next election, my party’s manifesto will once again contain a clear commitment to an elected second chamber. I accept that, in this parliament, the Liberal Democrats have lost the battle for an elected House of Lords."
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 
Ipsa isn't feeling much festive spirit: 
@thomasbrake: Disappointing that the independent body, IPSA, disregarded a request from MPs to take into account pay restraint.
In the Telegraph  
Best of the rest 
Daniel Finkelstein in The Times - Do we really want the State to run politics?
Philip Hammond in The Guardian - In defence of drones
NHS England's National Medical Director Sir Bruce Keogh's recommendations on seven-day a week services will be considered by the NHS England board at its public meeting.
8.45am Vince Cable speech and Q&A. The Business Secretary will be speaking at the launch of the London Professional Apprenticeship programme. PwC, 7 More London Riverside.
9.15am Government-appointed Airports Commission publishes first report. Report from commission led by Sir Howard Davies should be available from 7am.
9.30am Inflation figures for November are released by the Office for National Statistics.
2.30pm Commons Defence Committee hearing to examine the circumstances surrounding an attack on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan in September 2012.
2.30pm Jeremy Hunt at Health Select Committee. Wilson Room, Portcullis House.
2.45pm Tom Winsor, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary appearing at Home Affairs Select Committee. Grimond Room, Portcullis House.

3.30pm Bank of England Governor Mark Carney gives evidence to House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Boris v Cameron on Heathrow..

Good morning. The Airports Commission's report is going to spark a major political row. The Interim Report published today has announced that it will be taking forward for further detailed study proposals for new runways at two locations:
  • Gatwick Airport: Gatwick Airport Ltd’s proposal for a new runway to the south of the existing runway;
  • Heathrow Airport (two options): Heathrow Airport Ltd’s proposal for one new 3,500m runway to the northwest; and Heathrow Hub’s proposal to extend the existing Northern runway to at least 6,000m, enabling the extended runway to operate as two independent runways.
Here's the political problem: in their 2010 manifesto, the Conservatives announced that they were opposed to the expansion of Heathrow. The rationale for commissioning the Davies Review was to defer the issue into the next Parliament. But a major row will now be almost impossible to avoid. Boris Johnson, who has championed a whole new airport in the Thames - the so-called "Boris island" - has just told Today that "Building another runway in the west London suburbs is completely crackers, it will simply feed the beast." The Mayor of London wasn't convinced by Gatwick's claims, either: "An extra runway at Gatwick won't make a difference, the airlines will still want to go to Heathrow", although Boris said that it was the "least injurious" of the three options. Sir Howard Davies earlier told the Today programme that the commission would decide by next summer whether to keep the "Boris lsland" option open.
Still, the report will not have impressed Boris. Nor will it have pleased Justine Greening, MP for Putney in West London, who has consistently opposed a third runway at Heathrow and was moved away from Transport to avoid entangling herself in the decision. Zac Goldsmith, the MP for Richmond upon Thames, has previously suggested that he could quit the Conservative Party if they support a new runway at Heathrow. On a day when Tory spirits should be high - a new Yougov poll finds the party having closed the gap on Labour to only two points - David Cameron will instead have to contend with some very awkward party management. There is potential political difficulty for Labour too, but Ed Miliband has softened his opposition to Heathrow expansion in recent months.
The Daily Mirror splashes on expenses - again. Lord Hanningfield is the subject of the Mirror's attention, after claiming his £300 daily allowance on 11 occasions in July when he was in the Lords for under 40 minutes. Its headline - "THE LORD'S A-LEECHING" - doesn't quite tell the whole story: the point to emphasise is that Lord Hanningfield did nothing illegal. In fact, one way to assess the strength of a "sleaze" story these days is the use of the phrase "There is no suggestion that X has done anything wrong" or variations thereof, which immediately turns the story into a moral judgment. The rules may seem ridiculous, but Lord Hanningfield was not responsible for setting them: attention should turn to those who do. Amid the hysteria, Kevin Maguire goes as far as calling for "a clean break with a sordid past" and calls for the Lords to be abolished. We may hear plenty more of such calls in the next few days. But abolishing the Lords would change the nature of British politics far more than is realised, most significantly by increasing the power of the PM and Cabinet - which, during the Blair era, was considered to have dangerously centralised power. The Lords may be flawed, but there are very good reasons why the upper house has been around so long.
Remember the Immigration Bill? Six months ago, David Cameron told MPs that it was "a centrepiece of the Queen’s Speech". It has seen been mysteriously delayed, with Andrew Lansley telling MPs that it has been delayed because of "a lot of legislation before the House". Paul Goodman explains that "the real explanation lies elsewhere – in an amendment tabled by Nigel Mills, a Tory backbencher." Mr Mills's amendment seeks to halt the entitlement of Romanians and Bulgarians to enter Britain on the same basis as other EU citizens and, has already been signed by at least 72 MPs, getting close to half of all Tory backbenchers. Paul writes that "with the European elections looming in May, Ukip’s poll ratings nudging up again, and an unknown number of Eastern Europeans due to arrive – not to mention an Immigration Bill in suspended animation – we haven’t heard the last of it. Nor has the Prime Minister."
On a trip to visit British troops at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, David Cameron was asked: "Do they come home with mission accomplished?" The Prime Minister replied: "Yes I think they do." Mr Cameron was accompanied by several sporting figures - including Michael Owen - and aims to strengthen sporting ties between the two countries. He would like the end of Britain’s 13-year-long military involvement in Afghanistan next year to be marked by an international football match at Wembley stadium.
Some doom and gloom for you all: people born in the 1960s and 1970s face becoming the first generation since the Second World War who will be worse off than their parents in retirement, according to a new IFS study. They are only likely to be better off than their parents if they receive an inheritance, the report says. At a time when much political debate is focused on young people this will refocus attention on the plight of pensioners. 
George Osborne writes in the Wall Street Journal of how Britain got its growth back. And the Chancellor is optimistic about the future for Britain and America too, saying that "Both of our countries should also be tearing down trade barriers and opening up to investment from countries such as China. I've just been in Beijing to secure Chinese investment in a new generation of British civil nuclear power plants. Many Western nations lack the ambition to build such energy infrastructure, let alone encourage overseas investment in it. Not Britain."
What were Len McCluskey and Tom Watson deep in conversation about in Portcullis House yesterday?
Nick Clegg has weighed in against Theresa May's proposals to cap EU immigration at 75,000 a year. Mr Clegg called on the Home Secretary "to spend less time leaking policies that are illegal and undeliverable". Mr Clegg also uses an interview with I readers today to declare: "I am a passionate supporter of the freedom to move and work in the European Union" He also reiterates his support for a mansion tax, suggesting that this will be in his "little black book" when the Coalition partners coordinate their divorce before May 2015.
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 
A friendly warning: 
@LordAshcroft: I do hope the Tory leadership has a complete handle on the state of play in the marginal seats. If not........

In the Telegraph
Best of the rest 
Rachel Sylvester in The Times - Power is seeping from the party leaders
Janan Ganesh in The Financial Times - Cameron must show he’s the man 
NHS England's National Medical Director Sir Bruce Keogh's recommendations on seven-day a week services will be considered by the NHS England board at its public meeting.
8.45am Vince Cable speech and Q&A. The Business Secretary will be speaking at the launch of the London Professional Apprenticeship programme. PwC, 7 More London Riverside.
9.15am Government-appointed Airports Commission publishes first report. Report from commission led by Sir Howard Davies should be available from 7am.
9.30am Inflation figures for November are released by the Office for National Statistics.
2.30pm Commons Defence Committee hearing to examine the circumstances surrounding an attack on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan in September 2012.
2.30pm Jeremy Hunt at Health Select Committee. Wilson Room, Portcullis House.
2.45pm Tom Winsor, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary appearing at Home Affairs Select Committee. Grimond Room, Portcullis House.

3.30pm Bank of England Governor Mark Carney gives evidence to House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Why aren't the Conservatives doing better?

Good morning. Westminster is winding down, but, while there's a lot of noise, nothing is really changing. As the latest Polling Observatory report puts it, "there is almost no movement at all: Labour have been dead steady at around 37% to 38% for more than six months." The report continues: "What little movement there is in blue support is also in the wrong direction – and our most recent estimates find Conservative support at 30.9%, down 0.9% on last month. Support for the Conservatives among the electorate has moved around more in 2013 compared to Labour, largely because of a strong link with UKIP support – when Nigel Farage’s party has been up in the polls, this has tended to hurt the Conservatives." So, 11 months after David Cameron's pledge of an In-Out referendum was meant to shoot Ukip's fox for good, the Conservatives are still looking over their shoulders at Ukip.
The consolation, of course, is that, as Iain Martin writes today, there is "no discernible enthusiasm whatsoever on the part of the electorate" for Labour. This is the rationale underpinning the Conservatives' determination to fight populist wheezes with grown-up politics: a belief that, when it comes to polling day, the electorate will plump for what Tories on Twitter call their "#longtermplan". But that doesn't do much for the immediate polling figures - nor for those Tory MPs prone to asking "Why aren't we doing better?" Iain's solution is for the Conservatives to "go it alone and summon up the most deadly, clear-sighted campaign they can – to "throw the kitchen sink at Miliband" in the words of one Westminster veteran – and hope that it jolts the electorate into life."
A leaked Home Office report proposes limiting net EU immigration to 75,000 a year. The problem is that would require a renegotiation of the European Union, so there are no quick fixes. Speaking on the Today programme, Theresa May hinted that the idea is being looked at. The Home Secretary said that "there is a growing concern about the abuse of free movement" in the EU and "this is not something that is just being raised in the UK". Expect plenty more tough talk on immigration before January 1.
Danny Alexander will today announce the creation of a new position, akin to a company CFO, which will include the roles of head of public spending and head of the government finance profession - essentially, in charge of looking at spending priorites over the whole of government.The FT reports that Government insiders are considering appointing a senior FTSE 100 executive, rather than a career civil servant. Whoever takes the job is likely to report directly to Sharon White, the second permanent secretary at the Treasury.
Fracking could create over 30,000 new jobs, according to a Government report out tomorrow. The central projection for an expanded shale industry will put the figure closer to 20,000 jobs directly employed in the energy industry.
David Cameron has launched an SOS campaign: "Save Our Selfie". Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt wants to destroy the photo - but Mr Cameron has urged that it to be auctioned off for charity instead.
Labour aim to make housebuilding a central plank of their pitch to the electorate in 2015 and, to that end, Ed Miliband is giving a speech on the topic in Stevenage today, attacking "stick-in-the-mud councils". Labour would order a national planning inspectorate to give priority to local authorities that want to expand if they are being blocked by neighbouring councils refusing to release land. Mr Miliband will commit the next Labour government to giving communities "use it or lose it" powers to release land that is being hoarded by developers. He is expected to say: "The next Labour government will give councils powers to charge fees or, if necessary, purchase such land, so that developers have an incentive to do what they went into business to do. We will back home builders. But we will tell land hoarders with sites that have planning permission that they must use it or lose it."
The Home Office has said that it's set to publish anti-slavery legislation proposing to bring in tougher sentences for human traffickers. The Modern Slavery Bill aims to increase the maximum custodial sentence for offenders from 14 years to life. On the Today programme, Theresa May praised Frank Field for his work on the issue.
How can residents near Heathrow be convinced about the need for an extra runway? The IEA today publishes its solution: tax cuts to allow residents to share in the benefits of extra runways. The IEA also argues that politicians should be removed from decisions on airport expansion and local communities given the final say.
There's an interesting poll in today's Indy, showing a generation gap in attitudes towards the EU. Young adults under 25 are pro-EU by eight points - compared to an anti-EU majority of 35 points among over-65s. But will the young bother actually vote in any referendum? 
So much for working together in the spirit of Christmas. Bipartisan attempts to save the Gay Hussar have failed, with a mystery bidder trumping the £175,000 offer by Lord Kinnock, Tom Watson, Lord Ashcroft and Andrew Mitchell. Former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth wasn't feeling sentimental, telling The Times diary: "The truth is, the restaurant must have failed because it failed. Old lefties don’t spend any money; they just want to sit there drinking."
Westminster has been overtaken by collective gloom in recent weeks: sleep deprivation has been for nothing, as England's Ashes has brought only humiliation. The urn could be lost today - but it's not all bad news. Thanks to Nigel Farage we now know the problem: "lack of opportunity to play cricket in many of our state schools is at the heart of this problem. Our Test team, like so many sectors of our public life, are increasingly a reflection of the private education system... How are we to build a world-beating team when we do not even attempt to ensure we have a plethora of talent to choose from?"  
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 
Tom Watson has a bad Monday morning: 
@tom_watson: Walked out to winter. Missed my train to London. Forgot my bag. It never seems to happen to other MPs. Why is that?

In the Telegraph
Best of the rest 
David Aaronovitch in The Times - Segregation rules in the dominion of dirty minds
Philip Stephens in The Financial Times - Osborne joins futile quest for holy grail of economics
1430 London: Theresa May gives evidence to Home Affairs Committee. Wilson Room, Portcullis House
1515 London: Public Accounts Committee hearing on student loans. Martin Donnelly, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; Mick Laverty, Chief Executive of the Student Loans Company and Luke Edwards, Deputy Director, HMRC giving evidence. Committee Room 15, House of Commons.

1600 London: Sir John Major gives evidence to House of Lords committee on UK soft power. The other witness will be Tara D. Sonenshine, former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs for the US Department of State. Committee Room 1, House of Lords

Monday, 9 December 2013

IDS under fire..

Good morning. It's a big day for Iain Duncan Smith, who will be defending the universal credit to the Commons Work and Pensions Committee in the Wilson Room at 4.30. The Commons public accounts committee has already written off £140 million, and it comes a few days after he admitted that 700,000 people would not by moved to universal credit by his 2017 target. He gave a preview of his arguments to Today, saying that the "vast, vast majority of people" will be on universal credit by the end of 2017." But Mr Duncan Smith added an admission: "I do accept, of course, that this plan is different fro the original plan." For Labour, racking up the pressure is seen as a way of reducing their credibility gap with the electorate on welfare. Speaking to Today, Rachel Reeves described the programme as "a shambles" and said "the whole project is now in disarray". Mrs Reeves also confirmed that "We believe in the principle of universal credit", a reminder that, despite the current problems, Mr Duncan Smith has done much to set the political agenda on welfare.
Nevertheless, there is no denying the difficulties for Iain Duncan Smith, or his clumsy attempts to get rid of the DWP’s permanent secretary, Robert Devereux. But sources now say that Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Devereux have found an accommodation. And the political damage to the Conservatives may be less then feared: the Tory high command reckons that those affected aren't likely to be Tory voters anyway. After New Labour, the public also have an appetite for a government being strict on welfare.
The Lib Dems are unveiling their strategy for the next general election. That means differentiation is the order of the day: Nick Clegg is planning a blitz of speeches in the New Year to stress the contrast between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. In an early hint of what's to come, Danny Alexander yesterday said said that "there are big differences between our parties; we want to have both a strong economy and a fair society, we think that you need the Liberal Democrats to keep the country in the centre-ground so you can have both." What's the endgame to all this? There's some speculation that there may now be an early divorce, with the Coalition dissolving next Autumn and the Conservatives then governing alone until May 2015. But this could create the impression that the Lib Dems "run away from all their achievements in government", as one MP puts it. The alternative - going out of ministerial cars and into the election - would not be without problems too. Yet, after all the Lib Dems have done to project themselves as comfortable governing, it would be an odd reversion to the party's comfort zone to not stay the course. How the party reacts to the European election results - when it's conceivable they could come fifth - will be the acid test.
Here's an irony: MPs are rushing to criticise the parliamentary watchdog designed to protect their images. IPSA is set to call for an 11% rise in MPs' salaries on Thursday, prompting MPs and Cabinet ministers to see who can denounce the idea more convincingly. Jack Straw and David Ruffley are among the few MPs to suggest that the rise may have merits, with Mr Straw suggesting that it could help with "recruitment from people of modest background". Our leader argues that MPs rarely help themselves, saying that "MPs as a class are, as we have said, far more honest than many of their critics allow. But if they really do deserve a pay rise – at a time of acute pressure on the public finances – they must show a ruthless determination to punish those who misuse public money. On that score, some progress has been made – but there is still a way to go." The Times says that "If we want the best quality representation then we cannot begrudge paying them properly." But that's not a very popular view: The Sun warns that "There'll be hell to pay!" if the pay rises go ahead.
Labour's plans to freeze energy prices could "bankrupt" investors in energy companies. That's not a CCHQ press release: it's the warning from the OECD's head Angel Gurria. "They'll probably go bankrupt. How are you going to get people to come in and invest to get their money back in 30, 40 years' time when you say there's going to be a freeze?" Mr Gurria said: "I think this is simply not consistent, not economically objective." George Osborne and others who support a "grown-up" response to Labour's populist turn will see it as further vindication.
It's worth recapping Ed Balls' interview yesterday. The Shadow Chancellor said that he "couldn’t give a toss" about speculation that he might be sacked, and six times refused to apologise for Labour allowing public debt to increase. But the interview was nothing compared to the challenges of performing Der Dichter Spricht, the final movement of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, at a concert hall in North London on Sunday morning. Diane Abbott's words would hardly have made Mr Balls feel much better: "One thing you should not under-estimate in Ed Miliband is the capacity for ruthlessness. If he feels it is right to bring in Alistair Darling, or whatever, he will do it."
A headline that Ed Miliband could have done without: Lord Puttnam, a film producer and Labour peer, has said that Labour “handed a considerable gift to the Tory party” by picking Ed as party leader over his brother David. Lord Puttnam told World This Weekend: "Ed’s done well (but) David, in the last two years, as a leader would have been a much more difficult proposition. The day-to-day contest in Parliament would have been a lot tougher for Cameron and Clegg." He also complained of "a lack of candour" at the top of the party: ""You get the feeling of slightly staged events. I think there’s a lack of a broad conversation where really great ideas get picked up and properly discussed." 
Labour has finally chosen its candidate to fight Falkirk in the general election. They have picked Karen Whitefield, a former MSP - and, as the Mail points out, a campaigns officer for the office and shopworkers’ union Usdaw. Miss Whitefield aims to "unite" the party behind her. The Conservatives are in no mood to let Labour off the hook, with Priti Patel saying that, "Despite Ed Miliband promising to cut his links with his union paymasters, clearly nothing has changed as they parachute in another one of their chosen candidates".
Anne McIntosh's political future is under threat after Conservative party officials in her Thirsk and Malton constituency refused to endorse her as their election candidate, accusing her of failing in her constituency duties. But Ms McIntosh is a political fighter: she faced a similar threat four years ago but local party members voted to overturn their executive board's decision and reinstate her as candidate.
A Ukip councillor, Victoria Ayling, has been videod saying she wished to "send the lot back". Mrs Ayling, a former Conservative election candidate who defected this year, was defended by Nigel Farage, who said that Ukip would stand by her.
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 
Twitter has its flaws:
@NadineDorriesMP: Twitter doesn't do irony.

In the Telegraph  
Best of the rest 
Peter McKay in the Daily Mail - Why desperate Ed is daft to bring back the Blairites
Edward Luce in The FT - Obama cannot lead from behind on trade
0945 London: London Mayor Boris Johnson outlines new cycling plans for capital. City Hall
1430 London: Tributes to Nelson Mandela in Parliament. House of Commons
1600 London: Culture Secretary Maria Miller and Business Minister Michael Fallon give evidence to Lords committee on UK soft power. Committee Room 1, House of Lords
1600 London: The Office for Budget Responsibility give evidence to the Commons Treasury Committee on the Autumn Statement. Thatcher Room, Portcullis House
1615 London: Communites Secretary Eric Pickles gives evidence to the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee. Grimond Room, Portcullis House

1630 London: Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith gives evidence to the Commons Work and Pensions Committee. Wilson Room, Portcullis House

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Mandela passes away..

Good morning. The death of Nelson Mandela has rightly wiped out coverage of the Autumn Statement. Our rolling blog will keep you updated with the reaction to the loss of this remarkable figure, and we will be posting the tributes and recollections of key figures there throughout the day. If you read nothing else, the Telegraph's magisterial obituary is gripping. And David Blair's assessment of Mandela's record is a lucid and compelling account of a remarkable life. The news dropped just before 10 last night, in time to knock George Osborne off the news bulletins. Below you can catch up with the key verdicts on the Chancellor's statement, which can be summarised broadly as: Comeback for Osborne, disaster for Balls, glimmer of hope for Tories, ominous consequences for Labour, nagging doubts about the economy, terrible truth about public finances, and a long haul ahead for Britain.
There is no ambiguity about it: yesterday was a very good day for George Osborne. The Mail has a photo of the happy Chancellor - "The smile that says Britain's on the mend" - and few disagree. Mr Osborne's message - "Britain's economic plan is working", but the job is far from done - is a hint of the one he'll take to the electorate in 2015. If the OBR's forecast of 2.4% growth for 2014 does prove correct, then the expectation is that will feed through to living standards - a grown-up response to Ed Miliband's energy price freeze. That's why there is an increased feel of optimism among Conservative MPs, although no one is under any illusions that it'll be easy: whether this lasts all the way until May 2015 is the acid test. Will the Conservatives regret being committed to a full five-year Parliament, denying them the option of an early election? Steve Richards says that "Osborne could fight the election campaign tomorrow. Labour still has some big decisions to make."
The FT says that "Mr Osborne did not shy away from acknowledging these hard truths. His motive, however, was largely political. This was to remind voters not only that the coalition’s deficit-reduction mission was incomplete but that a putative Labour government was the gravest threat to its completion." Jeremy Warner warns that "the challenges remain as daunting as ever", and calls for further "reforms to boost business and trade." We argue that it was vindication for the Chancellor's strategy - but that "The annual cap on social security spending announced in the Autumn Statement should be a precursor to far more ambitious reforms of state provision." The Guardian is less complimentary "The return of wage growth was pushed back by another year in the smallprint of Thursday's figures. These reveal that the average worker is now in for 15 lost years. Recovery or not, Mr Osborne will not really regain his swagger until he can do something about that."
Politics being what it is, a good day for Mr Osborne translates into a very, very bad one for Ed Balls. Nothing says that quite like the comments of a Labour MP to The Sun: "He f****d it up. I was watching it thinking, 'We are f****d'... Ed Miliband should have sacked him in the last reshuffle. It's a sign of weakness that he didn't." The Mail's headline says it all: "Red Balls! Knives are out for humiliated Ed: Day of mockery for the shadow chancellor who still can't accept he was wrong", while its leader says "The Chancellor puts Balls out for the count". We plump for "New Balls please, jeer buoyant Tories".
Quentin Letts is on blistering form: "Being a politician, naturally, he opted for churlish. He began by shouting that Mr Osborne was ‘in complete denial’. And from that moment he was finished. Even Labour MPs (horribly quiet behind him) could see that the man in denial was puce-chopped Ballsy, not the vindicated Mr Osborne." Aditya Chakrabortty writes in The Guardian that "Balls delivered the same attack lines he has been using since 2010. "Flatlining", "slowest recovery for over 100 years", "tax cut for millionaires": all were present and technically correct, just rather shopworn after three years of constant service." Questions will inevitably be asked about whether Mr Balls will remain in his post until the election. That remains very likely, but the prospect of Alistair Darling, fresh from keeping Scotland in the Union, replacing Mr Balls next autumn is one that many will find allurring. Still, if there is one certainty about Mr Balls, it is that he will fight.
Not all Conservatives had reason for cheer yesterday. Iain Duncan Smith is going to miss his deadline of getting all existing and new benefit claimants on to universal credit by 2017. John McTernan says: "What? This is his flagship reform. Everything should have been considered before the reform was embarked on. It's hard enough to reform benefits on their own. Worse when you require a whole new integrated government IT system." But, through a combination of the Autumn Statement and the passing of Nelson Mandela, the problems with universal credit will now escape much scrutiny.
It wouldn't be like George Osborne to miss any opportunity to rack up the political damage. There will be a vote six months before the electionon whether to support Mr Osborne's blueprint to reduce the debt once the deficit has been eliminated. The idea is to expose divisions in Labour; any no vote would be paraded as a sign that Labour still hadn't learned its lessons. And there's another possible trap too: the welfare budget will be capped for the first time next year and Labour will be challenged to match it, presumably at the time of the next budget.
The Mail aims its fire at the experts who didn't see the recovery coming. This includes the BBC - and its "entrenched and mindless opposition to all public sector cuts"; Stephanie Flanders; David Blanchflower; and Paul Krugman. "They are the Jeremiahs who, for the past three years, have been talking down the economy — predicting that the austerity ‘cuts’ would precipitate a triple-dip recession and misery for millions of people."
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 
The PM pays tribute:
@David_Cameron: A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time. I've asked for the flag at No10 to be flown at half mast.

In the Telegraph  
Best of the rest 
Philip Collins in The Times - As usual, we’re addicted to the short term
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - He blinked. Croaked. He's vermili on Balls!
9.15am TaxPayers' Alliance and Institute of Economic Affairs post-Autumn Statement briefing. 2 Lord North Street, Westminster, SW1P 3LB.
10am Sentencing of Marine A. Sergeant Alexander Blackman, who was formerly known only as Marine A, was convicted last month of the murder of an injured Afghan insurgent.

12.30am IFS Autumn Statement analysis. IFS researchers will present their analysis of The Autumn Statement 2013. Studio Theatre, Rada, Chenies Street