Monday, 24 February 2014

What would Angela do..

Good morning. WWAD? It's the question all of us at Westminster, and the Tories in particular, will grapple with this week. The German chancellor comes to London on Thursday for a formal visit that will include tea with the Queen and an address to the joint Houses of Parliament. Angela Merkel is arguably the most important player in Britain's future relationship with the European Union, if David Cameron remains prime minister in 2015. Germany's economic and political power means it will decide what, if anything, Mr Cameron gets from the renegotiation he wants to launch. In fact, Ms Merkel will decide whether there is a renegotiation at all. Working out quite what the German leader will allow is therefore of great interest in London. What will Angela do?
Look at the papers today and you get two distinct possibilities. The first is the view from No10, which for some time has claimed to detect across the Channel a desire to give Britain it's every wish. The argument goes that she is a centre-right reformer, that Germany is fed up with the inefficiencies of the EU that require it to subsidise its feckless southern members, and that Ms Merkel will do anything - anything - to keep Britain in the EU as a counter-weight for reform against the French. The threat of a referendum, they say, and the suggestion that Britain could walk, will encourage Germany to make sure Mr Cameron gets most of what he wants. The Mail's p2 treatment embodies this charming optimism: "Merkel to back PM's bid for new EU deal". The intro develops the idea: "Merkel will this week give the green light to David Cameron's attempt to renegotiate Britain's relationship with Brussels". The government has pumped out this view, against, it must be said, much of the available evidence. Indeed, some might say it's wishful thinking that's dictated by politics. Having cooked up the referendum idea, Mr Cameron has to make it sound compelling and worthwhile against many of his backbenchers who think he is whistling in the dark. It is in his interests to talk up its possibilities, to drown out those who say that in the end he will settle for a few cosmetic changes and a vote in favour of Britain's continuing EU membership.
Consider for example the FT's treatment of the same story. Of course, its perspective is much more euro-elitist, but it headlines it "Merkel urges Britain to remain in the EU", and says that she is "unlikely to make significant concessions". The Germans say she will urge Mr Cameron to show his hand now, which funnily enough is what many of his colleagues want him to do. It is likely that he will have to, if only to buy himself more room with the irreconcilables on his benches. But the minute he does he will invite Ms Merkel to say what she will accept. And he will have to say what he is holding out for.
Don't underestimate either, while we are at it, the possibility that Britain will annoy more allies than it wins. The Mail has a buried line in which a No 10 source says: "She wants Britain in. She doesn't want to be stuck in an embrace of economic death with Francois Hollande." Mr Cameron has chosen 2017 as the date for a referendum, which will be in the middle of the French and German election cycles. If Mr Cameron is still PM (likely in my view but not certain) he will need as much support from other EU partners as he can get to secure the changes he wants. And they have long memories. Mr Cameron is pinning his hopes this week on the support of Ms Merkel. But support for what? Less than he hopes, I fear.

The Cabinet's on the road today, and meets in Aberdeen; deliciously, Alex Salmond and the Scottish Cabinet will meet only a few miles away. The PM has shifted his attention in the independence debate to North Sea oil - with the Wood Review released at 9.30 this morning, Mr Cameron today unveils plans that could boost North Sea oil by £200 billion over the next 20 years; but he simultaneously warns that the future of North Sea oil could be jeopardised if Scotland votes for independence because central government resources are needed to realise the drilling's potential. Ed Davey makes a similar point in a Telegraph article, saying that the UK has a "very attractive fiscal regime for oil and gas" but warning that a smaller country may struggle to provide the UK's "stability, certainty and levels of support". No one could accuse the Government of not taking the threat of Alex Salmond seriously enough - but is it all still a bit too negative? Still, an Aberdeen Press and Journal poll suggests the tactics might be working: it gives the No campaign a 65-17 lead, although that sounds too big to be plausible.
OSBORNE OFFERS UKRAINE A CHEQUE BOOKThe Government is clearly sensitive to criticism that it has not been active enough so far in the Ukraine. George Osborne yesterday made the case for the UK playing a leading role in the next phase of events, saying that "we should be there with a cheque book to help the people of Ukraine rebuild their country". Baroness Ashton will visit Kiev today.
There's an interesting snippet in the FT: "There are six people writing the manifesto and five of them went to Eton; the other went to St Paul’s," the Conservative MP Pauline Latham says. The story is significant for two reasons. First, it shows that criticism of Dave for favouring those with similar backgrounds to him remains as trenchant as ever; there is an undercurrant of feeling in the Tory Party that being fast tracked is a route only open to those who share the PM's old school tie. And second, the implication of public criticism is that this is damaging the Conservative Party electorally. Robert Halfon uses the pages of The Sun today to call for the Tories to change their name to "the Workers' Party".
Some unwelcome news on the Ukip front for the Conservatives: it's emerged that Sir Tim Rice, a former Tory donor, donated £7,500 to Ukip last year. The party's treasurer Sir Stuart Wheeler says he was "very friendly" and "We might try him again." The Mail solemnly warns that "Mr Cameron must treat this defection as a significant straw in the wind and start right now in making a supreme effort to reconnect with his party’s sorely neglected grass roots." Lord Heseltine has a novel take on Ukip, likening them to the CND and warning that the Tories should aggressively distance themselves from Ukip - and even brand the party the UK Isolationist Party. One problem is how would this play with the Tory irreconcilables, who see no future in the EU?
IDS CHANGING CHILD POVERTY MEASUREIain Duncan Smith is pushing ahead with attempts to change the definition of child poverty to a more sophisticated set of yardsticks. The difficulty is how to do this without being accused of fixing the figures (as it stands, the Government is way off its aim of eradicating child poverty by 2020), one reason why George Osborne is opposed. But, with David Laws said to be on side, IDS may have won this skirmish with the Chancellor.  
National Insurance could be retired after 103 years. Well, sort of. Ben Gummer will propose that NI be renamed "earnings tax" in a Commons Bill on Tuesday, with the Chancellor open to the idea. Ultimately the hope is that NI be merged with income tax in a step towards simplifying Britain's tax code.
The Labour MP Simon Danczuk (who has attracted attention for his attacks on Owen Jones in the past) has popped up with a devastating critique of Ed Miliband's strategy. Mr Danczuk describes Labour's cost-of-living offensive as "at the end of its sell-by date"; calls the One Nation slogan "over-used and hackneyed"; and says the Shadow Cabinet is "one-dimensional" with comparison to Tony Blair's. It's another reminder that backbench discontent isn't only a feature of the Conservative Party.
The Mirror lays it into Richard Benyon ("Britain's richest MP") today, with a double-page spread attacking Mr Benyon for "raking in £625,000 a year from his hard-up tenants’ housing benefit" which he has criticised. It also names and shames four other Tories - Sir Richard Drax, Lord Iliffe, Earl Cadogan and Lord Cavendish - who earn over £100,000 a year in housing benefit. All fuel to those who already dislike the Conservatives, but it's not going to convince too many floating voters.The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 
Latest YouGov poll: Con 32%, Lab 39%, Ukip 12%; Lib Dems 8%
This Norwich City fan isn't impressed:@edballsmp: The #MOTD2 analysis of Norwich win over Spurs was shockingly poor and misinformed. Sorry, but Danny Mills can't have seen the game.. #ncfc
BEST COMMENTIn the TelegraphBoris Johnson - We’re not the bad boys of Europe – just ask our ski instructors
Allan Massie - Only Britain can make the North Sea pay
Charles Crawford - Ukraine, Putin and the new face of Europe
Telegraph View - Ukraine needs help to rebuild its economy
Best of the rest
Robert Halfon - We Tories should be the Workers’ Party
Sarah Wollaston - Plans to relax building regulations in our national parks will spell disaster
Chris Deerin - Scotland is a nation going easy on itself and, the truth is, we all know it
Today: Cabinet to meet in Aberdeen
0930: Publication of Wood Review report on North Sea oil.
1345 LONDON: Newly elected MP Mike Kane arrives at House of Commons.
1515 LONDON: Public Accounts Committee on Ministry of Defence Equipment Plan and Major Projects. Witnesses include MoD permanent secretary Jon Thompson and Air Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff. Room 15, House of Commons
1710 LONDON: Transport Minister Robert Goodwill appears before House of Commons Transport Committee on roads