Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The trials of Nick Clegg..

Good morning. Nick Clegg is going to have to try a lot harder to impress Ed Miliband. The Labour leader is playing hard to get, and has replied to Mr Clegg's overtures with a smack in the chops. "Ed: I won't do back room deal with Lib Dems" says the Mirror. Mr Miliband said yesterday his focus was on securing a majority, and he advised Mr Clegg to worry about his own party. The Sun has "Exposed - Labour plot to KO Clegg" on page one, which details how the NEC is putting resources into taking Sheffield Hallam. The Times comes at it another way, reporting that the Lib Dems are jettisoning any policies that could get in the way of a coalition deal with either parties, as they work to re-establish "equidistance". The Times has laid into Mr Clegg in a leader under the headline "Clegg's Dangerous Shift", which declares: "He should be careful. By moving closer to Labour he risks the worst of all worlds: losing support in rural strongholds in southern England. This would compound the risks he already faces in urban, northern and Scottish seats because of his alliance with the Conservatives". Meanwhile, the Mail revives its favourite political character - "The Madame Fifi of British politics is at it again!", "hitching his skirt coquettishly at Mr Miliband…truly there is no more pathetic figure in politics than a coquette of easy virtue whom nobody wants to view".
Mr Clegg is on single digits in the polls. He has to find a way to remind voters of his party's existence at a time when the Prime Minister dominates the headlines by wading about in his wellies for the cameras. Fans of Robert Caro's epic study of Lyndon Johnson will tell you that the most important skill in politics is numeracy. Come the election, the Lib Dems expect to be the deal-makers, with either party. But to get there they need to hold their nerve and their vote. Mr Clegg is desperate to secure his share of the credit for the work of the Coalition, specifically on the economy. His point is that the recovery is the result not of George Osborne's solitary genius, but of the combined work of Mr Osborne and Danny Alexander. He fears, understandably, that the Tories are out to grab all the credit for the government's achievements even though it was a shared effort. His problem? As the headlines show, equidistance may be a pragmatic response but it looks too opportunistic. Mr Clegg also knows that in standing up for himself he risks sounding churlish, reluctant, grumpy: if the work of the Coalition is so impressive, why act as if it's all terrible. His gamble in May 2010 was that he would eventually get credit for doing the grown-up thing of setting aside political necessity in the national interest. But how to get noticed without throwing a tantrum?
Ed Miliband popped up with an article in yesterday's Evening Standard to draw attention to the housing shortage and Labour's solutions. Mr Miliband called for a "next generation of new towns" similar to Milton Keynes and laid out plans - action against property firms sitting on prime land and clamping down on empty flats owned by absentee foreign investors - to increase housebuilding in London. The significance is that Labour sees housing as a profitable source of votes, and a potential way of increasing its appeal with the aspirational middle who may feel rather ignored by all parties. Given their shared affinity for garden cities, housing is one area where Nick Clegg and Ed would get along just fine.
The floods could have serious electoral consequences for the two Coalition partners: a Times analysis finds that "Of the 40 most marginal seats held by the Tories, 15 have been affected by the weather. Of the 20 most marginal Lib Dem seats, 12 have been hit by flooding." In contrast, only four of the 20 most vulnerable Labour seats have been hit by the floods, although many of the most vulnerable Tory or Lib Dem seats pit one Coalition partner against the other, so the dynamics of voter frustration about how the Government has handled the floods could be peculiar. With that it mind it's also worth noting the new ComRes poll showing that 72 per cent think that the Government is not in control of the flooding - though the public still think that Mr Cameron has handled the floods better than Mr Miliband.
Viviane Reding yesterday accused British politicians and voters of using "emotion not facts" to judge the European Union. But that wasn't the only thing Mrs Reding criticised Britain for: she complained that her personal suitcase was stolen from an official car while she was in London. "It is the first time I have had my bag stolen and I travel all around the world." The bag included a cottage pie that Mrs Reding brought from a London farmer's market.
Alex Salmond was on typically belligerent form yesterday, rejecting the idea that an independent Scotland couldn't join the EU and saying that George Osborne would give up his opposition to a currency union in the name of "common sense" if Scotland voted yes. Alan Cochrane isn't convinced, pointing out that Mr Salmond plans to charge students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland up to £36,000 a year while other EU countries can study for free. He asks: "Why would those Brits want to share their currency – and the risks such an arrangement would bring – with the government of a country that discriminates against their kids like that?"John McTernan takes issue with the Yes campaign's tactics: "It is Mr Salmond who wants to leave the UK. But he wants to make taxpayers left in the UK underwrite his banks and economy. And if we say no? Scotland will default on its debt. Remind me, who’s the bully?"
Dave will be just thrilled. John Bercow has written to all three main party leaders requesting talks on how PMQs can be improved, following a Hansard Society report that 67 per cent think that "there is too much party political point scoring instead of answering the question" and only 12 per cent agree that "PMQs makes me proud of Parliament". Mr Bercow tells The Indy: "There are people who think culturally the atmosphere is very male, very testosterone-fuelled and, in the worst cases, of yobbery and public school twittishness" and that it doesn't help women, who are "less inclined to scream and shout".
In case you missed it, I reported yesterday on speculation about the reshuffle, and specifically the idea doing the rounds in Brussels and Westminster that William Hague could be sent to be secretary-general of Nato. The idea is to give Dave an elegant way of breaking the log-jam in the top jobs in government. He could then appoint Theresa May, say, to the Foreign Office, make Michael Gove Home Secretary, and so on. It's a scenario that has plenty of fans. Unfortunately, Mr Hague isn't one of them. "Completely wrong," a friend says. "Being Nato secretary general really wouldn't be his cup of tea. There's gossip about it in Nato because they'd understandably love to have him but it ain't going to happen."
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The strain of office is showing on Dave. He's gaining grey hairs - and quickly. That's a lot of grey in four years...
The Morning Briefing email is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter


Latest YouGov poll: Con 33%, Lab 40%, Ukip 11%; Lib Dems 9%
Sounds like a pretty good night in:
@andrewpercy: A beer to accompany this kebab and then it's bed! Watching 'The Mighty Mississippi' on ITV. Bringing back memories of travels!

In the Telegraph

Benedict Brogan - The Archbishop’s attack may be a blessing in disguise for the PM
Janan Ganesh in The Financial Times - Storms reveal government impotence
LONDON: Oliver Letwin and Jo Johnson roundtable with the insurance industry on flooding. 10 Downing Street
0930 LONDON: Inflation figures for January are published by the Office for National Statistics.

0930: Office for National Statistics (ONS) releases its house price study for December.