Friday, 21 February 2014

Religious insurrection..

Good morning. You might conclude that the Prime Minister is facing a religious insurrection this morning. Vincent Nichols has let him have it over welfare, and now his brother bishops in the Church of England have joined in too. The Daily Mirror splash records the criticism of 26 Anglican bishops under the headline "Bishops slam Cam over UK's 'hunger crisis'". There's a two page spread inside - "Divine intervention" - detailing the complaints of bishops including Manchester, Sheffield, Bangor, Durham, Gloucester, Oxford and Wakefield. "Britain is the world's seventh largest economy," their letter to the paper says, "and yet people are going hungry". It invites people to fast for Lent in solidarity. "Pray listen now, PM," the Mirror's leader advises.
Alongside them, the rumblings that began when I interviewed Cardinal-designate Nichols last Saturday continue. The Mail has criticised him for interfering and suggest he stick to his "territory". The Telegraph too has had a go with "A case of clerical error", and defends Iain Duncan Smith and his reforms. The Guardian has raised the prospect of a difficult summer between the churches and IDS after the sally from an "uncomfortable faith leader". The theme of the week then is Church leaders putting Mr Cameron on the spot about his policies and questioning the moral case he set out in his article for the Telegraph yesterday.
Is it really an insurrection though? Read the letter to the Miror for example, and it doesn't mention Mr Cameron, or IDS. There is in fact no slam of Cam. It does not specifically criticise government policy, just makes a point about modern-day hunger. It merely asks government to "make sure that work pays and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger". Ministers would say that is precisely what they are doing. By the same token, it should be recalled that Archbishop Nichols made a point of accepting the need for public spending restraint, and did not question the necessity of welfare reform, merely its implementation.
Criticism from religious leaders, in whatever form, is always uncomfortable for politicians. Mr Cameron said yesterday he welcomed the contribution to the debate, even if he didn't welcome it. He asserted the moral foundation of what he is trying to do, a point reinforced by IDS in a pamphlet for the think tank Theos. But Downing Street will be annoyed to hear the Cardinal-designate's cry echoed by the CoE. They know from recent history that interventions from the churches, even if not divinely inspired, can cause headaches. Mrs Thatcher endured her fair share, so did Tony Blair.
We may be led by distinctly secular politicians, but Britain hasn't altogether shed its Christian traditions. The criticism they make, that somehow government activity is too cruel and punitive, will strike a chord in the media. It's certainly the kind of complaint the BBC likes to amplify (sure enough, it's prominent on the bulletins this morning). Welfare reform is both vital and difficult. It is far from entrenched, and there are difficult negotiations to come in 2015 for whoever is in power to achieve yet more cuts. Mr Cameron can ill-afford having to fight a crusade against the Churches.

The Chancellor is in Hong Kong where overnight he sounded a warning about the fragility of the recovery. His office briefed out chunks of his speech in advance, and we've led with it: "Osborne: recovery is not yet secure". The Times have picked up the same theme: "Recovery still at risk from complacency, says Osborne". It would be a "huge mistake" to declare "job done", he said. "I'm not the first to say that the recovery is not yet secure and our economy is still too unbalanced". Too much consumption, not enough exports. Coming after yesterday's job figures, it is not hard to see why the Chancellor wants to manage expectations.
He knows, for starters, that he can't encourage his colleagues on the backbenches to start banging for tax cuts the country still can't afford. Nor does he want voters to think all is rosy and it's not safe to put Labour back in charge. The economy shows every sign of going "gangbusters", as Mr Osborne's team predicted a year ago. But he needs to keep the government focused on reform. "Some in Britain might be tempted to say 'job done, let's avoid more hard decisions'. That would be a huge mistake. Abandon the plan and we abandon the progress we've made and go back to square one," he said. By square one, he means Labour. Lest anyone think it's time for giveaways, the Budget next month will "deal with some hard truths". In other words, brace yourselves, there's more pain to come. The deficit remains above £100bn, in case you'd forgotten.
Mr Osborne's isn't being complacent about his weight, either. According to the Sun, he's signed up for the 5:2 diet - starve two days, eat very expensive burgers the other five - and a bit more jogging. I suspect he won't thank them for putting the story on p1 under the headline "Fad diet George battles pounds", or for starting it "Chunky Chancellor George Osborne…"And as for the inside treatment - unflattering pic, arrow pointing at his bulge, "Trying to Budge it" headline, helpful reminder that one of the side-effects of the 5:2 is bad breath - it's probably for the best that he's down under for the G20. 
Only the Sun picked up on the best story out of the Brits (a popular music awards thingy), and arguably the most unexpected intervention in the Scottish independence debate. Kate Moss, channelling Ziggy Stardust, accepted David Bowie's best vocalist award last night by delivering his speech in which he said "Scotland, stay with us". The Sun has splashed his "plea" - "Stay with us Scotland" - The Times too spotted it, but no one else got it in time for first editions. It's now running on the BBC, and we can expect plenty of learned analysis of what it might mean. The Sun, like others, also reports yesterday's ding-dong between the SNP and London, as the Scottish government warned rump UK would be landed with £5.5 bn in additional interest payments if Scotland defaults on its debt. The Telegraph reports that Lloyds bank has inadvertently intervened in the independence debate by placing TSB in a holding company registered in England, not Scotland, suggesting it is worried about the referendum's outcome. In case you missed it, I blogged last night on the reasons behind the Government's newfound aggressive approach to the hard truths about independence.
There's a summer of appointments ahead for David Cameron. There's the reshuffle, the new Nato secretary-general I mentioned the other day, and then there's Britain's place on the new European Commission. It's a big job, as the incumbent will have a front-row seat in whatever re-negotations Dave manages to get going if he returns to power in 2015. So Oliver Wright's story in the Indy is interesting: "Clegg to veto any Tory eurosceptic as EU Commissioner". The euro-sceptic right has been agitating to send one of its own out there to keep the PM on the right course. Owen Paterson's name has been mentioned, as have those of Liam Fox and Peter Lilley. But as some too easily forget, we have a Coalition, which means Mr Clegg gets a say. And his friends say: "We don't think it would be in Britain's interest to use the job as a bully pulpit to attack Brussels rather than working constructively to protect our interests". Mr Clegg would be prepared to back Andrew Michell or Andrew Lansley though. I'm not sure either will thank him for that Lib Dem stamp of approval.
The FT leads with the crisis in Ukraine, which is detailed in full across the papers. David Blair has a must-read despatch from Kiev. What's telling about the FT account though - "EU leaders push for Ukrain sanctions" - is that Britain doesn't figure. There's an emergency meeting in Brussels today, where France and Poland will push for sanctions. Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel are referenced for their views, Barack Obama is in there, but there's no mention of David Cameron or William Hague. Is this curious? Britain obviously has a view, but there's no sense that London or Downing Street are seeking to take a lead in this major crisis of democracy on our doorstep. This is the same David Cameron who stood up to Russia in Georgia, remember. Edward Lucas, as it happens, reminds us that Britain is helping Putin win the Ukraine. Keep an eye on this one.
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