Monday, 17 March 2014

This is not about war in the Crimea..

Breaking News: William Hague has been speaking on the Today programme about the latest situation in Crimea, after 95% of voters supported joining Russia in a referendum.
Mr Hague said that using British military forces was not on the table - "We’re not looking at military options here, this is not about a Crimean war." But the Foreign Secretary said that "I’m confident we will agree some sanctions today, some travel bans, some asset freezes" and "We will continue our effort to make a diplomatic breakthrough". He added - rather chillingly - "I would not describe it as a new Cold War, but that will depend on the course of events over the next few days
You can catch up on all the latest from Crimea here.
THE MYSTERIOUS MR OSBORNEGood morning. There are two main strands to the coverage of Budget anticipation in the headlines. There's George Osborne's announcement yesterday on a new garden city in Ebbsfleet - "George Town", the Sun says; "Osborne: I will build for Britain" in the Telegraph. Then there's the guerrilla campaign on tax being run by various Tories: "40p tax storm rocks Tories" says the Mail. If only. The Chancellor gives every impression of being remarkably un-rocked by a storm that is more of a squall. He shows no sign of giving ground on the business of the 40p threshold, or the 40p rate, and will - everyone seems to assume - go further down the Lib Dem route of jacking up the personal allowance above £10,000.
The garden city push may make some Tories anxious if Mr Osborne indicates that he will spread them further or accelerate the process. Daniel Knowlesmakes a strong case for them in the Times. But what most Conservatives will grapple with this week, particularly when they listen to the Chancellor on Wednesday, will be the tax question, or more pertinently the Tory tax question: what kind of tax policy does the Tory party believe in these days? Again and again, we are confronted with evidence that this Chancellor is taking traditional Tory thinking on tax into a new direction. His Treasury has some nifty answers for its critics about the precise effect of raising the personal allowance on those on middle incomes. It is also fairly sharp in addressing the suggestion that those on £50,000-£100,000 are in some way middle earners. The Mail has lasered in on the suggestion yesterday that Mr Osborne believes there are "advantages " for the Tories in having more people on 40p because they then "feel they are a success and joining the aspirational classes". Apparently what he really said was that the important thing was that they are paying less tax overall. The Mail tells Mr Osborne to stop patronising his core supporters and "at least tell them he believes the 40p tax threshold is too low, and that he will raise it as soon as humanly possible? That, surely, would be the Tory thing to do." This, I think is where the Budget will be interesting. Will Mr Osborne give us an inkling of his thinking on future tax policy? Will he give Tories any comfort on the future direction of the main rates or his ambitions for reducing the number of people affected by the higher rates? Will he instead try to persuade us that concern for rates or thresholds is no longer an issue, and what matters is raising the starting point? Will he say anything at all about the tax base and whether he wants more or fewer people paying income tax? Or will he say nothing at all, and keep everyone guessing about his intentions? This is where Mr Osborne is being mysterious.
HS2 is back on the agenda. Sir David Higgins' report HS2 Plus, published today, advocates building the line as far as Crewe by 2027 - six years earlier than previously planned. It's something that would do a little to appease the concerns of critics who see the project as London-centric, treating the North only as an afterthought. But Sir David's report was also commissioned in the hope that it would shave a few billion off the estimated £50 billion cost, and it doesn't put a figure on any savings. On Today, however, he made the case that bringing forward the timeframe would reduce costs associated with uncertainty. Labour will back the HS2 bill when it receives its second reading in the House in the next few weeks, but Ed Balls used his appearance on Marr yesterday to reiterate his stance that he would support HS2 if costs came down.

George Osborne's team will be pleased with some flattering coverage in today's papers. What's he done? The Chancellor looks newly svelte: he has had success with the 5:2 diet (which means restricting himself to 600 calories a day for two days a week) and the mockery of his weight has come to an end. Handy timing if there turns out to be a Conservative leadership election next year. But as the Mail details, Mr Osborne's not the only one watching his weight - the whole Cabinet seems to be "a model of lean government". Dave has reportedly cut back on his dairy intake (though Downing Street doesn't like to comment on such matters); Nick Clegg has started kickboxing; Michael Gove recently lost 2st on an "fat farm" in Austria. 
The Times calls it "the most unlikely of coalitions". After Ed Balls and George Osborne had duelled on Marr yesterday, the Chancellor took on childcare duties for Mr Balls' son (looking after Joe in the Marr show green room) while his father went on Radio 5 Live. Not that the Shadow Chancellor showed much gratitude in a typically pugnacious interview.
The SNP have warned Andrew Marr to expect "consequences" after accusing him of breaching BBC impartiality laws by stating that it would be "quite hard" for an independent Scotland to join the EU, which hardly constitutes the world's most controversial comment. The Nationalists' broadcasting spokesman, Pete Wishart, said that the interview showed "the worst" of the BBC and called on Mr Marr to "just get his Better Together T-shirt out".
The Mail is still furious about the appointment of Duncan Weldon as Newsnight economics editor. In its leader, it complains that "By appointing as its economics editor Duncan Weldon – a former Labour adviser and TUC economist with almost no journalistic experience – it destroys any semblance of impartiality."
The Times zooms in on Ed Miliband's problem with business in a fascinating spread by Sam Coates. One business leader says "We saw how he viewed us: sitting there in our pinstripe suits while he was standing up for the oppressed workers." A former Labour minister complains: "I would say that the fact Labour could not get a single leading business person, say a FTSE 100 CEO, to positively endorse them is quite a stunner given the poll lead 14 months to the election, and the predilection of some business folk to back the winner. The top team is not trusted by business and Miliband can’t explain himself." With Ed proving "more offensive than charming" it falls to Ed Balls and the "grand" Chuka Umunna to try and repair Labour's relationship with business: what the party does on capital gains tax is seen as an indication of whether Labour wants to make more business friends. In its leader, The Times warns that "it is very dangerous for a party to allow the impression to form that it is anti-business. Not to mention the fact that regular conflict between a government and business would be bad for the country."

The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 

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BRUSSELS: EU foreign ministers meet to discuss sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis
1030 PRESTON: Sex offence trial of Nigel Evans MP continues with witnesses expected to include Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and fellow Tory MPs Michael Fabricant and John Randall. Preston Crown Court, Ringway
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1605 LONDON: Transport Minister Robert Goodwill and aviation/air accident chiefs appearing before House of Commons Transport Committee on North Sea helicopter safety.