Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Merkel bears few gifts for Cameron..

Good morning. We've been given a first draft of what Angela Merkel will say when she pitches up tomorrow for her red carpet and tea session. The Guardian - "Merkel ready to offer Cameron limited EU opt-outs" - has the detail. And there's not much of it. It certainly doesn't look remotely enough to appease the EU-phobes on Mr Cameron's backbenches, although you might well say that nothing short of withdrawal would put a smile on their faces.
The German chancellor has a few goodies to offer Dave. She accepts the idea of a new or revised treaty - she calls it "targeted" treaty change - and suggests it could include a new clause to protect Britain and other non-euro states against being outvoted on single market issues by those in the euro-zone; she's considering limited opt-outs, specifically for the NHS on the Working Time Directive (this is arguably the most interesting bit); and also less intrusive application of EU regulations (this on the other hand sounds particularly woolly).
Bloomberg - "Merkel said to call for stronger EU in disappointment to Cameron" - is also gloomy about the prospects for Dave. "The expectations of the British press are clearly too high," it quotes her spokesman Steffen Seibert as saying. It adds the detail that she had planned to deliver her address to both Houses of Parliament in English, but now will do most of it in German. Meanwhile, the FT's leader - "Merkel comes to Little England" - is predictably pink in outlook. Pointing out Britain's absence from the Ukraine crisis, it concludes: "Ms Merkel will get the red carpet from a British government with narrowing diplomatic ambitions and an increasingly introverted approach to Europe. This is a Britain slowly moving to the sidelines of world affairs."
What is plain is that major change, and repatriation of powers, is not on the German agenda. For the moment at least. The argument boils down to this: Downing Street and some Tories believe that political reality will drive Germany, and others, to accept greater change as a price for keeping Britain in the EU. Most other people, particularly those steeped in the murk of European politics, say that it is delusional to think so, that it is Mr Cameron who is weak and who cannot command sufficient support across the Channel to achieve anything bar the most cosmetic of changes. Some Tories of course think that is his secret aim, that he wants just enough to be able to parade it as a change worth voting for in a referendum. On the eve of Ms Merkel's visit it looks like No10 will have a hard job to make what she will say look like anything that Tory MPs are clamouring for..

The Times ratchets up the pressure on Peter Bone. It reports - again, on the front page - that funds raised from the sale of his mother-in-law's house were paid into the bank account of Mr Bone’s daughter, before being moved to accounts controlled by the Conservative MP, and are now the subject of a criminal investigation. The Times alleges that Mr Bone was heavily indebted and owed nearly £200,000 on a series of credit cards - had he been declared bankrupt, he would have been forced to resign as an MP. Mr Bone has a majority of 11,000 in Wellingborough.
Harriet Harman escapes the front page of the Mail (she has to make do with page five) but the pressure on her remains after she expressed "regret" over the links of a paedophile group with the National Council for Civil Liberties.The Mail uses its leader to attack the "many like her on the Left who believe there is no public interest in knowing that Opposition frontbenchers were once prepared to tolerate these predatory paedophiles." In the Guardian, Zoe Williams says that the deputy Labour leader "was right not to apologise: to do so would have been to give credence to this story, which is no more than a tenuous smear campaign. It's not news; it's not even new." Meanwhile Roy Greenslade warns against getting into a scrap with the Mail, though his claim that "about 40% of its readers vote Labour" will come as a surprise to many. In 2010, only 16% of Mail readers supported Labour.

David Skelton takes to the Guardian to warn Conservatives against any deal with Ukip, and the notion that the path to a majority for Dave is as simple as adding Tory and Ukip votes together - 48% of Ukippers say that they would never back the Tories. New Ipsos-Mori figures also show that 46% of semi and unskilled manual workers and 40% of skilled working class voters would never vote for the party. And the Conservatives will have to do rather better than the new Sir John Major apprenticeship programme to change that. The Times embarrassingly reveals that one of the new apprentices is the son of a Tory candidate, and another is already an intern for a Tory MP.
That didn't take long. If one of the desired effects of Dave publicly considering ruling out a coalition with the Lib Dems was getting Labour to consider doing the same, then CCHQ will be heartened by Len McCluskey's comments that "if they are the biggest party then my view is Ed should have the courage of his convictions and govern on a minority government." The Conservatives will welcome anything that turns the election into a starker Dave v Ed contest. In The Times, Daniel Finkelstein says that it would be foolish to close off one route to government, and that the decision could tie the Tories up in knots: "Does David Cameron promise that he will insist on an EU referendum if he remains Prime Minister? And will this promise hold even if the Conservatives are not in power alone?" Dan Hodges offers the two coalition partners a similar warning. "If they spend the next 14 months highlighting the differences and divisions that have existed between them – or even go as far as some of Mr Cameron’s allies clearly want, and dismiss a future coalition outright – then there is only one logical conclusion the voters can draw. That the grand coalition experiment has been a failure. And if they conclude that, then the sole beneficiary will be Ed Miliband."TOP TORY DONOR HAS HAD ENOUGH
There's some very bad news for the Tories hidden away in Sebastian Shakespeare's Mail diary: hedge fund owner Sir Michael Hintze, who has loaned the party, £2.5 million, reportedly wants his money back. A source explains that Sir Michael "is deeply upset with the party’s promotion of gay marriage; it grates with his Catholicism. And as a tax-cutting free marketeer, he’d hoped to see a more radical economic agenda."TESSA JOWELL: MPS AREN'T SPECIAL
The national treasure that is Tessa Jowell gave the latest Speaker's Lecture last night on Parliament and the Press. She had lots to say and I've highlighted the key bits on my blog. The stand out line is her reminder to MPs that they shouldn't think they are entitled to special treatment. She also declares herself a big fan of "the economist Daniel Knowles", which just goes to show how far the Morning Briefing can take you.
Ed Balls will be chuffed at an endorsement from an unlikely source this morning. Peter Mandelson has praised his old foe as having the "economic brain power, financial discipline and global outlook" that Britain needs and tries to turn the relentless jeering at Mr Balls from the Tory benches into an asset: the Shadow Chancellor "is under attack from the Bullingdon boys at the top of the Tory party because he has the strength of intellect to challenge them." A fundraising speech also contained some friendly advice to Mr Balls: "Keep the lasagne flowing, keep up the marathons and the piano recitals." The intervention is a reminder of the success of Ed Miliband in avoiding the Labour Civil Wars that have characterised their previous electoral defeats.
The Sun spies victory in its "Ditch handouts to rich" campaign, with George Osborne's new welfare spending cap set to include means-testing the winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and TV licences. Politically this closes off one of the very few areas in which Labour has promised additional spending cuts (even if all sides know that the sums are puny). But how much will it save?The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 
Latest YouGov poll: Con 33%, Lab 39%, Ukip 11%; Lib Dems 10%
Tom Watson warns of fickle friends:
@tom_watson: Peter Mandelson backs Ed Balls: Well, he does today and only in the Guardian.
In the TelegraphDan Hodges - Everyone is fed up with Clegg, but ruling out a coalition is mad
Con Coughlin - Be wary of Putin – not frightened of him
Iain Martin - Attention Tory HQ: John Major was PM a long time ago
Telegraph View - Insensitive and arrogant
Best of the rest
Daily Mail leader - Can't the Left ever make a mistake?
Daniel Finkelstein - Cameron would be mad to rule out coalition
Zoe Williams - PIE, the NCCL and Harriet Harman: why she was right not to apologise
David Skelton - A Tory pact with Ukip would bring disaster
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond attending meeting of Nato Defence Ministers in Brussels.

Foreign Secretary William Hague on visit to USA. 

9.30am Schools Minister David Laws giving evidence to the Commons education select committee.

10.45am Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg monthly press conference. Dover House (Scotland Office), 66 Whitehall.

11am Taxpayers' Alliance launch campaign to scrap the Alcohol Duty Escalator. Blue Boar, 45 Tothill Street.

12pm Prime Minister's Questions. 

From 2pm the murderers of soldier Lee Rigby will be sentenced. The Old Bailey

2.30pm Commons Scottish Affairs Committee to hear evidence on Scottish independence. 

3pm Expert witnesses give evidence to Commons Environment Committee on winter floods.

7.30pm Minister for Cities Greg Clark speech on Conservatism and Cities to Bright Blue think tank. Meeting Room C, 1 Parliament Street