Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Cover up at number 10..

Good morning. The arrest of Patrick Rock has been turned into a political scandal, if we are to judge by the headlines and the cast of characters joining the story. It's not just the splash in the Mail - "Why did No10 cover up aides's child porn arrest" - but there's also a big puff for Littlejohn's latest "Do we really want to live in a land where Downing Street officials are arrested in secret?" The cover-up claim is on the front of the Telegraph and the Mirror as well, and the story gets plenty of play inside the other papers. Ominously for No10, Tom Watson and John Mann have taken it up, which suggests Labour is about to weaponise the story. The next stage, presumably, will be calls for an independent inquiry. Two issues are being scrutinised: first, the delay between Mr Rock's arrest on February 13 and the news emerging on Tuesday night; second, the idea that he was somehow tipped off about his imminent arrest to allow him to resign, as suggested in the Guardian.
Westminster loves this kind of personality-driven who did what when tale. There are some themes worth pursuing, not least how it got out (including the name of the civil servant involved in the sexual harassment angle, which the Mail has but isn't publishing), having been kept secret for three weeks. The Mail is pressing the secrecy angle with vigour: should a statement be made every time someone is arrested? There is also the chumocracy aspect - the Times uses the term. Consider the Mail's p1 puff: it describes Mr Rock as an "official". But the point of course is that he isn't: he's a special adviser, not a civil servant, and there will be plenty who will wonder whether Number 10 would have offered a civil servant caught in similar circumstances the same discretion, or whether he would have been immediately thrown to the wolves.
Downing Street is irritated by the suggestion of a cover-up and incandescent about Labour's opportunistic involvement. We should point out that we don't actually know much about the case against Mr Rock, how it emerged, who is involved, what the police have uncovered or what the police are demanding. No10 appears to have moved swiftly to put in the hands of the NCA and leave it to them. Drawing immediate conclusions based on a vague timetable is high risk, and should be avoided. In Number 10 they reckon they can't win on this one, because as long as there is a fact vacuum, Westminster will fill it. The Tory view is that there is something distasteful about the way Labour have piled in so soon after their own troubles with the PIE allegations against Harriet Harman & Co. "For them to be behaving like this so soon after their pedophile business is a bit rich," one tells me. As this develops it's worth remembering that we don't know much, that Mr Rock hasn't been charged, and that the actors rushing onto this stage are all playing parts that aren't necessarily innocent or motivated by independent inquiry.

In the last few hours, President Obama has said that he does not view Vladimir Putin as "unhinged" and said that compromise remains an option: "We may be able to deescalate over the next several days and weeks, but it’s a serious situation and we’re spending a lot of time on it." US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due to hold talks today - their meeting, in Lebanon, was long planned, but Ukraine will now inevitably dominate. Nato and Russia will also hold talks in Brussels, while EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton is having talks with the new government in Kiev. After William Hague's statement in the Commons yesterday that the UK Government was working to improve relations with Russia, I argued that "Mr Cameron must persuade us why his policy of constructive engagement with a bully is in the national interest" in my blogCon Coughlin argues that the Government is paying the price of cuts in defence spending: "Without the "big stick" of a military capability at his disposal, no one is going to take Mr Cameron seriously, even if he is softly spoken." Simon Jenkins says that "Ukraine has revealed the new world of western impotence".
COALITION AT WAR - SORT OFThe Coalition partners have descended into another public row, with Nick Clegg attacking the Tories' "brass neck" and saying there had been "very hostile" Coalition clashes over tax policy. Mr Clegg and David Laws were among the Lib Dems angry at George Osborne's attempts to incorporate an EU referendum Bill in the Queen's speech. It gets a decent pick-up, even with all the coverage of Ukraine - "Coalition's public rows over tax and Europe" is our headline; the FT says "Osborne plea for EU bill stokes coalition tensions"; the Times says "Coalition argues over Budget and Europe". But, as ever, there's a certain stage-managed element to it all: the Tories posture, the Lib Dems get cross, and everyone is happy. It's not just about the long march to the general election - both parties face a difficult European election. For all the focus on the Tories, the Lib Dems risk coming fifth, behind the Greens - the party will calculate that every "row" before polling day will make that less likely.


An old friend has come to Labour's rescue. Yep, that's right, Mr Tony. The former PM is reportedly in touch with Labour about making a "large donation" to help fill a gap in the party's finances as the unions prepare to reduce their funding. But the significance is that it would assuage doubts over who Mr Tony will support at the next election - some Tories had been hoping that he would back the party or, more likely, give a pointed silence.  

The FT has a very uncomfortable story for Nigel Farage. It reports that the Ukip leader appeared in a Youtube video telling Brussels not to legislate against e-cigarettes after Ukip received £25,000 from Pillbox 38, the company behind a brand of e-cigarettes. As the report notes, it's all very problematic, because it raises questions about the impact of donations on Ukip's policies. It also sheds some light on the party's financial problems: since 2010, Ukip supporters have pledged a total of £2.5m, compared with £87m received by the Tories and £63m by Labour. Even the Lib Dems have received £16.7m. Paul Sykes has pledged £1.4m to the party, but Neil Hamilton has complainedthat Ukip had still not "seen the colour of his (Sykes’s) money".
Last night's Newsnight reported that the Government was withholding publication of a report suggesting that the number of UK workers unemployed due to migration is much less than previously thought. We have heard something similar in the past: in January, it was reported that a report on EU migration had been shelved until after the European elections, after Theresa May had failed to make the case for imposing tighter curbs on immigrants. It is hard to escape the feeling that the Government is weary of anything that might make them look soft on immigration. On Today, Nigel Farage insisted "There's no doubt British people have lost their jobs because there is too much labour coming into the market" and said that "The Eurozone is doing so badly that we now run the risk of an unparalleled number of workers coming into the UK."
Sarah Vine explains in her Mail column why her and Michael Gove "believe that at state school Beatrice will receive a far more comprehensive education — in every sense of the phrase — than at any private establishment." The Guardian notes the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders' Brian Lightman's support for the decision: "We congratulate the secretary of state and his family on their choice. This is a further sign that our state schools are in excellent health". Politically, the effect could be to take the sting out of Labour's constant attacks that Mr Gove is "talking down" state education.
Lord Aschroft has popped up with another truth-seeking poll. Predictably, all three party leaders come out of it badly: the most common word used to describe David Cameron is "posh"; the most common description of Ed Miliband is "weak" - which is the same as for Nick Clegg. The report also says talk of Dave's "women problem" is nonsense after the majority of Ukip defectors have been men: "It is not women who have a problem with the Conservatives, it is voters." As Lord Ashcroft said in an earlier report, it's time to "Smell the coffee".
The Mail takes the attack to Dave for his failure to act on the creep of the 40p rate, with Kwasi Kwarteng identifying it as a priority in the Budget - we can assume that the 36 Tory MPs in the Free Enterprise Group are inclined to agree. Our leader also calls for the PM to recognise the problem of fiscal drag before the next election. This could get decidedly awkward for Dave: with a fortnight to go until the Budget, a theme is emerging that backbench critics will need no encouragement to latch onto. Will the Conservative leadership show any sign of responding?

The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 

Latest YouGov poll: Con 34%, Lab 38%, Ukip 13%; Lib Dems 9%
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