Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Conservative exasperation..

Good morning. An emerging theme of the new political season is tensions between Tories and Lib Dems in Government. Nick Clegg told MPs yesterday that his job was to support the Prime Minister, which drew hollow laughs from the Tory benches. Actually, he does. Across Government there is plenty that he and David Cameron agree on and work together to achieve, not least the shared endeavour to reduce the deficit. They are also explicit about where they do not agree. Most of the time these disagreements are, well, agreed, each giving the other advance wearing of an imminent public shoeing. Not always though, and it is certainly the case that Mr Cameron and sometimes Mr Clegg have been heard to rage about the other when ambushed. Some elements of disagreement are taken as part of the ebb and flow: anything Vince Cable says, for example, is shrugged off by both sides as the rumblings of a dormant volcano. 
The FT has some useful background on Lib Dem thinking about the year ahead, specifically that Mr Clegg will push the confrontation with Mr Cameron on big policy areas over the next nine months in the build up to Lib Dem conference in Glasgow. It's described as a "programme of escalation": after the opening salvos of the new year, things will calm down a bit before the parties go at each other for the European and local elections in May. The FT suggests that Mr Clegg may try to head of criticism of his leadership that will come when the party loses most of its MEPs by attacking the Tories. There is certainly a whiff of desperation in it: the Guardian reports that Lib Dems are complaining about Tories stealing their policies - hilarious. What effect will all this displacement activity have? Tories are certainly showing signs of exasperation, and are returning fire. Boris called Mr Clegg a condom yesterday, which even the Mail found a bit de trop. Expect it to get nastier. But words is just words: will the Coalition survive? Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron intend it to, and it is hard to see what could come along to trump their act of political will. The danger point is Europe, and if Tory MPs force the Prime Minister to a point where he has to put his survival before the Coalition's. Still a long shot, especially if the Tories can turn attention onto the plight of the Lib Dems, who are barely out of single figures in the polls.
What's going on with the minimum wage? The conflicting reports today should be read as a sign that the Conservatives still aren't exactly sure, even if there is a definite sense of elements in the party making a concerted effort to win an increase. The Sun reckons it could be raised by 99p - from £6.31 to £7.30 - and, in a now familiar ritual, has the Lib Dems and Tories fighting over who can claim the credit. We reckon a rise of 50p is more likely, with party strategists reasoning that an increase would help the Conservatives in Labour-held seats in the North West and Midlands, where lower-paid workers will decide the outcome. Jo Johnson is weighing up evidence on whether such an increase could put jobs at risk. The FT reckons that it's far from a done deal, and say that the PM will defer to the Chancellor on the issue - who they say is opposed. A source explains that "Unemployment has been a good news story for the last two years and we don’t want to rock the boat a year out from the election.” But figures such as Matt Hancock believe an increase would not cost jobs - and the case is made more attractive because senior Labour figures were relieved that there was no minimum wage announcement at the last Tory conference, and an increase would be a way of stealing Labour's cost-of-living clothes. 
There are more problems for universal credit today. According to minutes from a Whitehall meeting obtained by the Guardian, the problems centre on tensions between Iain Duncan Smith and Francis Maude: friction is leading to "high-level" risks to the delivery of the project. The minutes also confirm that Mr Maude's department has accelerated the pullout of its elite team of IT experts from the universal credit project. The Cabinet Office is getting much of the blame for the difficulties: a separate leak says that the DWP might not be "able to obtain the skills required to replace" the government digital service experts "within the current market at affordable cost". One of the government's most ambitious projects is fast descending into a blame game and some will even see this as evidence that Mr Maude is working in league with George Osborne to cause problems for IDS. But the Cabinet Office have attempted to downplay the Guardian story with a statement this morning: "The Cabinet Office fully supports the excellent policy of Universal Credit. We will not comment on leaked documents - the DWP publicly set out its plan for implementing this programme last month... Following the delivery by GDS of strategic proof of concept in October 2013, a team within DWP will now take the digital solution forward, led by the department's digital leader. This transition was agreed between Cabinet Office and DWP".
Owen Paterson is one of the Tories reckoned to be most in tune with the shires' concerns. So he won't appreciate being laid into by countryside groups: in the Mail, the policy director of organic farming group the Soil Association says: "The accusation that opposition to GM is “political” is simply a politician’s way of sidestepping the overwhelming scientific, safety and market arguments against GM." And in The Times, Peter Kendall, the outgoing president of the National Farmers Union, attacks Mr Paterson's attitude towards climate change: “I would ask him to be careful about talking about the beneficial effects of climate change because farmers who are at the wrong end of extreme weather events often have a whole year’s work ruined. Government policy is not joined up on building agricultural resilience and we need to work on that as a matter of massive urgency.” That even his friends appear to be turning on him shows what difficult times these are for Mr Paterson. 
Simon Danczuk has had enough of the "torturous repetition" of political slogans like One Nation and has called for an end to "parroting slogans". Mr Danczuk reckons that a little less message discipline will help politicians connect:"It isn't a coincidence that people like Boris Johnson, Frank Field, Tom Harris or Nigel Farage have the ability to communicate more effectively with the wider public – it's because they are perceived to speak their mind, to say not what their party wants them to say, but what they think."
Boris Johnson took his attacks on Nick Clegg to new heights yesterday (or new lows, depending on your perspective), likening the Deputy PM to a condom. Even the Mail is prompted to ask whether Boris has "gone too far" this time.   
The Daily Mirror is gunning for Michael Gove's wife. It runs a story saying that DWP's Facebook page includes a link to Get the Gloss - a website run by Sarah Vine - under a post advising how to “dress for success”. Get the Gloss offers products including £230 Creme de la Mer serum and £130 Gypsy Water perfume. A DWP spokeswoman insisted Ms Vine was not involved in the decision to link to Get the Gloss, while Mr Gove's spokesman has denied any knowledge about the link. Meanwhile,Craig Oliver has been rebuked, according to the Mirror, about breaking Downing Street security after previously using his pass to sneak Lynton Crosby into No 10. 
Are we vulnerable to voting fraud? The Electoral Commission is setting up an inquiry into 16 council areas to examine the “vulnerability” of some South Asian communities — specifically some from certain areas of Pakistan and Bangladesh — to electoral fraud. The commission today calls for voters to be required to show photo ID at polling stations in England, Wales and Scotland (voters already have to in Northern Ireland) and the requirement could be in place before the 2020 general election. It also says that political party activists should no longer be allowed to handle postal votes.
Sticking with dodgy voting, the Conservatives are facing embarrassment after apparently selecting the wrong candidate for the safe seat of South-East Cambridgeshire. An alleged miscount occurred in the final round of voting between Lucy Frazer and her rival Heidi Allen - a pile of 25 votes was marked as being for Miss Frazer, when in fact only the top two papers were – with the rest being for Miss Allen. CCHQ is dispatching two senior officials to the constituency and may order a re-vote. 
Dave's crimper gets plenty of press again today. Harry Wallop salutes Lino Carbosiero - the "man who has successfully kept the bald spot on the back of the prime minister’s head almost permanently hidden" - and explains why a hairdresser is so important in the salons of power.    
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 
Here we go again...
@chhcalling: A new educational establishment has opened its doors today. It is called "The Optimists' School" - supposedly the classes are all half-full. 
In the Telegraph  
Best of the rest 
Daniel Finkelstein in The Times - A separate NHS tax would rein in spending
Simon Danczuk in PR Week - The new 'on message' is being off message
Robin Harding in The Financial Times - The return of dynastic wealth
9.30am Bank of England releases its credit conditions survey for the fourth quarter of 2013.
9.30am Tom Winsor, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, will appear at the Public Administration committee on crime stats. Room 15, House of Commons. 
12pm PMQs returns. 
2.30pm Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael gives evidence to Commons Scottish Affairs Committee on independence referendum. Committee Room 8, House of Commons. 
2.45pm William Hague will appear at the Committees on Arms Export Controls. Grimond Room, Portcullis House. 

3.30pm Professor Chris Elliott gives evidence to MPs on his review into the horsemeat scandal. Professor Elliott will appear before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee. Committee room 15, Palace of Westminster.