Friday, 10 January 2014

Osborne borrows from Brown..

Good morning. For all the talk of a year focused on governing, it is becoming clearer by the day that David Cameron has put the Conservative party on a war footing. The Times has useful details of some of the meetings this week, including a 'council of war' at Chequers yesterday with senior ministers, to look at the election. This has encouraged fears, not least among civil servants, that government will grind to a halt as Tories and Lib Dems fight with each other. This is likely true, though we should acknowledge that an absence of interesting ideas may also have something to do with it. The Coalition gave itself a work programme in 2010, and has simply run out of things to do (Dave would want us to acknowledge that what it has done is impressive). We are told that ministers have been cautioned by Craig Oliver against giving voters reason to suspect they are distracted by the election. But actions speak louder. The Lib Dems led by Nick Clegg have started the new year as they intend to continue, by attacking the Tories on policy.
The Tories in turn are out to smash Labour at every opportunity. Indeed, I gather that George Osborne has issued instructions to all ministers that henceforth any statement they make has to be framed to highlight 'dividing lines' with Labour. "It has been made clear to us that everything has to be political," a minister tells me. The year's opening salvos are on the economy, leading up to the Q4 GDP figures later this month. The edict, from the Chancellor, in part resolves the dilemma that has frustrated some Tories, namely that Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron have shied away from setting out dividing lines with the Lib Dems by highlighting what they would do if only Nick Clegg would let them. Mr Osborne has argued privately that the Tories will sound like whingers if they complain about what they can't do. Instead the focus will be heavily on Labour. Every announcement, every statement will be calibrated by the centre to ensure maximum damage to Ed Miliband. This dividing lines approach will sound familiar of course. It's what Gordon Brown liked to do - remember "investment versus cuts"? - to smash the Tories. Once again, here's evidence that the Chancellor is not averse to borrowing a few tricks from the discredited but undisputed master of election tactics.
There's an interesting snippet in an ITV News / Comres poll seen exclusively by the Morning Briefing. While economic confidence is riding high, there are huge variations between social grade: 56 per cent of AB's expect the economy to improve in 2014, but only 28 per cent of DEs do. 41 per cent of DEs also expect there to be another recession in 2014, double the number of the top social grade. For the Tories the poll is a reminder of the need to convince lower-income groups that they will benefit from the recovery - and will only add to the attraction of raising the minimum wage.
It's now three months since Royal Mail shares were floated, and there is no sign of an end to the "froth" in the price - despite what Vince Cable predicted. The Mail calls on Vince "to apologise for short-changing the taxpayer" while Labour has called it "botched" and a "fire sale". Michael Fallon was called to defend the policy on Today: "This sale was a success and it’s given that company every prospect of a secure and stable future."
The FT has a report on the struggles of the Better Together campaign: the Union is crying out for a hero. There is an absence of "big beasts" to support Alistair Darling who, for all his talents, is regarded as overly "dreary" by some insiders. The replacement of Michael Moore as Scotland secretary by Alistair Carmichael was regarded as an attempt to fire up the pro-union frontline - yet Mr Carmichael struggled in his first televised debate with Nicola Sturgeon. For all the concerns, the No campaign still retains a solid and stable poll lead.
No 10 might just have had its fill of Nadhim Zahawi. There's been no messing around responding to Mr Zahawi's criticism of planning reforms, with a source saying that "Being a member of the policy board means supporting Government policy" and Nick Boles also weighing in. Mr Zahawi yesterday clarified that he "made the comments as the member for Stratford upon Avon, not as a member of the policy board." But Downing Street isn't taking kindly to his perceived intransigence: Mr Zahawi will have to recant to save his skin.
So much for the hope that the EU Referendum Bill would sort out the European issue. The Conservatives had reckoned without the intervention of the Lords: the FT says that more than 70 peers are due to speak during today's debate, suggesting that there could be multiple amendments that would threaten the bill's passage. One peer who said: "It is by no means clear we will have gone through all the stages in time for it to get back to the Commons in time." Michael Dobbs likens it all to House of Cards - but says that he's still "very optimistic" that the bill will pass. James Wharton says that the public would "not forgive" Labour and the Lib Dems.
The ugly World War One row continues apace. This time the target is Maria Miller - allies of Michael Gove have complained about a lack of mention of the role played by troops by Australia and New Zealand. A Whitehall source tells the Mail: "This is awful - the idiot Maria Miller is doing nothing to involve the rest of the Empire, who sent vast numbers of people to help us.".
John Redwood has said that immigration and the "unprecedented expansion of labour supply" had contributed to stagnant wages. This is more than just a powerful backbench voice speaking: Mr Redwood, the chair of the Conservative Economic Affairs Committee, is expected to have a role in setting the 2015 manifesto.
Dr Liam Fox could be the next Secretary General of Nato. The Mail reportsthan Dr Fox's name is "on the table" for the role, with the current Nato boss due to stand down in September. For David Cameron the attraction would be twofold. Dr Fox is widely respected and regarded as "Nato's biggest supporter in the Commons". But if he got the role it would have the added perk of removing a potential source of trouble for the PM - Dave could doubtless envisage Dr Fox leading calls for further action on the EU after the European elections. Lord Ashcroft has endorsed the idea this morning on Twitter, which may - or may not - help. Dr Fox would have to resign his seat of North Somerset, where the Tories have a majority of nearly 8,000 over the Lib Dems.
Dave blames the BBC for his lack of popularity in Liverpool. The PM accused the BBC of misleading listeners about the scale of cuts in the city - on BBC Radio Merseyside, he said "One of the reasons people feel treated unfairly is because they hear on programmes like yours, day after day, week after week, sets of figures that aren’t accurate or right." And Dave is also fighting a little closer to home - Owen Paterson refused to endorse the PM's suggestion that the recent storms were linked to climate change.
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter 
Mark Reckless is impressed with one Cabinet member - but not the rest of them:
@MarkReckless: IDS is fighting EU in court on benefit rules but PM, Treasury and their lawyers are not even fighting on paying child benefit to Polish kids.
In the Telegraph  
Best of the rest 
Philip Collins in The Times - Only trust can dampen this inflamed anger
Philip Stephens in The Financial Times - Tomorrow holds both risks and riches
Ben Macintyre in The Times - The stench of a cover-up over Libya grows
Pc Keith Wallis in court accused of misconduct in public office over the plebgate affair. The Old Bailey.

10am European Union (Referendum) Bill - Second reading in House of Lords.