Thursday, 5 December 2013

Osborne confounds Balls..

Good morning. As this lands in your inbox the 8am Cabinet is being briefed by George Osborne on the contents of his Autumn Statement. The indications are there won't be any big giveaways, though that does not mean there won't be show-stoppers or at least flourishes to give us something to write about later. Much of it though appears to have been trailed, from extra spending cuts for non ring-fenced apartments to scrapping NI for under-21 employees. Today there are reports of an increase in the pension age to 70; an extra £1 billion in spending cuts for each of the next three years; and the end of tax discs displayed on car windscreens. 
The desired narrative seems to be straightforward: a surging economy confounds Ed Balls, vindicates the Chancellor and puts the Tories on course for victory in 2015. Mr Osborne will temper that by striking notes of caution about the risks still present to the economy and more importantly the unfinished business of that pesky, three-figure deficit. The FT leads with talk of a surplus, but not until 2018. If Tory MPs tempted to start spending the proceeds of growth need persuading, they should look at the graph which shows the UK deep in the red for years to come. Look at it this way: by the time the public finances get back to black, Dave will have been party leader for 13 years. Tory MPs will also contemplate the contrast between their economic optimism and political pessimism: everything's coming up roses, except their prospects.
Mr Osborne will be garlanded with praise for having comprehensively stuffed Ed Balls, and - even more - for holding his nerve when others might have crumbled. But his colleagues are not ready to celebrate him as a political strategist. Why? Because they worry that he devotes too much time to tactics that make the Tories look as if they are dancing to Ed Miliband's tune. In that sense, the Autumn Statement is the moment George Osborne, having navigated the economy back to safety, can turn his attention to his next big challenge: securing the outright victory that eluded him last time. There is no time to be wasted on celebrations. If you thought fixing the economy was difficult, try winning power as a Conservative in 2015. You can follow developments throughout the day on our live blog.
And here's how Labour is trying to change the subject. Labour has launched a "cost of living bombshell" poster, evoking Tory "Labour tax bombshell" posters of elections past; while this will resonate with some of the electorate, the risk is that the timing rather has the whiff of putting up the white flag on the economy. And where this leaves Ed Balls is a moot question: by tying himself so explicitely to the "too far, too fast" narrative, Mr Balls hasn't left himself too much room for manoeuvre.
In the papers, Peter Oborne says that, if the good news keeps coming, "Conservatives will have a terrific story of how they took over the management of the economy at a moment of dark national emergency, made unpopular decisions in the teeth of defiance from Labour, then stuck to their course in the face of media scepticism and hostility." Tim Montgomerie writes that "Plan A has worked, Mr Miliband, and how, by the way, is your comrade Monsieur Hollande doing?" but calls for the Chancellor to recapture the Coalition's "early vision and ambition". Chris Giles explains why "The young get the worst of Britain’s cost of living squeeze". Martin Kettle thinks the autumn statement is "a wholly political confection": 1% about the economy and 99% about election politics. Dan Hodges calls on the Chancellor to keep things simple today - and say "I told you my plan would work. It has. I’m sticking with it". Tim Wigmoreassesses Mr Osborne's record on the debt and deficit compared to the targets he set out in his "unavoidable budget" three years ago.
Theresa May is taking on the EU over immigration today. She wants to be able to cap the number of EU migrants coming here, and good luck to her. To judge by what I was told last night though, she has problems closer to home. Apparently Sir George Young is likely to announce today at business questions that the Immigration Bill, which we were expecting next week, has been put back. Why? The version I've heard is that it has been pulled because Government managers have spotted an imminent car crash: an amendment tabled by Tory MP Nigel Mills, which would require that restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarians be kept in place for a further five years, has secured a heap of backbench support - more than 60 Tory names are on it, I'm told. Its supporters believe they are on course to secure support from more than 80 potential rebels, raising the prospect of yet another mass Euro rebellion for David Cameron. So the Government has put the whole thing back while it considers what to do. But I gather the rebels are planning to try to re-introduce the amendment as a piece of backbench business in the week before Christmas (think prison votes). The difficulty is obvious: if adopted, the amendment would put the British government in breach of EU law, something no Prime Minister can credibly contemplate, or so the argument goes. The rebels hope however that Mr Cameron might be tempted to be sympathetic: he can note the result, say Parliament has spoken, and use it to strengthen his negotiating hand in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. Expect fireworks.
Andrew Mitchell is being sued by Pc Toby Rowland, the police officer he has accused of lying over Plebgate. Mr Rowland said he was prepared to go to court and swear on oath that Mr Mitchell used the word "pleb" during the argument last year. The news will dampen the calls among David Davis and co to give Mr Mitchell his job back. Mr Mitchell now faces two legal actions to defend his honour in which he will be expected to prove his case. His friends fear that he has bitten off more than he can chew.
Michael Gove's team isn't best pleased with Nick Clegg. The announcement of free school meals has resulted in the Government raiding the Department for Education’s school building budget for £80 million - apparently, the £600 million first earmarked didn't include the cost of redeveloping school kitchens. The Times reports Department for Education sources saying that the money "does not exist" and the issue is "unresolved".
David Cameron would like to think his visit to China was a success, even if no one is kidding themselves that the Chinese would delay an event like the Autumn Statement to accomodate a political visit to Britain. But he returns to a warning from the Mail to beware the Tiger: "yes, we want a flourishing trade relationship. Yes, we believe in realpolitik. But it would be a huge mistake to ignore the threats posed by an increasingly rapacious China... Merely diverting the public’s attention from those potent threats, with headline-catching briefings about domestic matters, cannot be the right approach."
John Woodcock has said that he is suffering from depression and is seeking help. The Labour MP wrote "I am very much hoping that my constituents and fellow parliamentarians won't notice much of a difference from me popping pills. I have mostly managed to avoid moping about like Eeyore up until now, and am assured that the antidepressants I am taking will not induce any inappropriate 'you're my best mate' euphoria in the House of Commons chamber."
Sam Coates devotes two pages to asking just what's happened to the former PM - and current MP, though he's made only six Commons speeches since leaving Downing Street - who describes himself as an "ex-politician". Gordon Brown seems devoted to international projects, especially on education, and is said to barely talk to either of the two Eds. Dinner with Mr Brown went for $350 at a charity auction last month. When asked for help with Sam's article, Mr Brown's office said: "This is not a true article on ‘the works and life of Gordon Brown’ based on conversation with ‘friends and associates’. It is very obviously another smear built on false foundations."
Even more confusing than the case of Mr Brown is that of Falkirk. The story gets even murkier with the revelations in the Times that at least two people with false addresses and no known link to their supposed homes were enrolled by Labour before the voting in the contest to become candidate in the seat. Expect to hear plenty more questions about Ed Miliband's failure to reopen the investigation.
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 
Politics isn't always a nasty business:
@JWoodcockMP: Turning in now. Thanks so much for the messages - haven't been able to reply to them yet but have read them all (I think!) You're so kind.

In the Telegraph  
Best of the rest 
Tim Montgomerie in The Times - Britain no longer needs to envy Germany
John Woodcock in The Guardian - I am depressed and I have decided to get help
9am Nick Clegg's call-in radio show.
10.25am Leading judges at the Court Martial Appeal Court in London announce their decision on whether the names of five Royal Marines should be made public following a high-profile trial over the killing of an injured insurgent in Afghanistan.
11.15am George Osborne delivers the Autumn Statement, House of Commons.
12pm Bank of England decision on interest rates and quantitative easing programme.

12.30pm OBR's Economic and fiscal outlook: publication then press conference. One Great George Street.