Wednesday, 30 April 2014


Good morning. It's a big moment in the Commons today. MPs will vote to give the go-ahead to HS2, endorsing the principle of high speed rail to the North of the country. The focus this morning is on the scale of any rebellion - the BBC says 30 Tories will vote against, more than rebelled over the paving Bill. Yet to judge by the papers, the rebellion hasn't got much momentum behind it: coverage is thin, and there's no sense of drama about it, or of any personal political difficulty for David Cameron. True, some of those lined up against HS2 may be motivated by something other than a passion against fast trains, but this doesn't feel like a test of Dave. In fact, it feels as if it's one of those issues where the numbers mean it's safe to rebel.
Labour's support, consolidated by Mary Creagh over the weekend, means the legislation will receive its Second Reading and head into its committee where it will be subject to many petititons from local authorities and other bodies objecting to the route and the idea. The Government remains anxious to get the process right and avoid any risks, so has given up on the hope of getting it done this Parliament. With the May elections, the Scotland referendum, and party conferences, there isn't nearly enough time. Efforts have been made to give Labour access to all the information it needs. Those on the government side congratulate themselves that Ed Balls has been won over by Sir David Higgins, the new HS2 boss, and that Labour's backing has been secured and will ensure HS2 goes ahead whatever the outcome of the general election. Indeed, the amount of scrutiny HS2 will receive compared to, say, the M40, is striking. One thing is certain: this scheme isn't being rushed.
It's also striking that the language has been modulated considerably by Patrick McLoughlin, who refuses to criticise those along the route who object as nimbys. Instead, he has tried to mitigate the effects where possible, and avoid being dismissive. Economic arguments being raised against it are also being rejected: the IEA for example has attacked HS2, but the Government points out that back in the day the IEA also objected to Crossrail, and got its numbers wrong. Britain has become quite adept at delivering ambitious infrastructure projects. The Olympics, obviously, Crossrail, St Pancras and King's Cross refurbishments, or - more pertinently - the transformative effect of HS1 on connecting remote Kent economically to the capital. We may not notice it, but today will prove to be a for more significant day in British history than we realise. I say British: ministers might consider whether a clear statement on the prospects for pushing HS2 to Scotland sooner might help in September.  
First Nigel Farage, now Alex Salmond. Just what is it that Britain's demagogues see in the Russian autocrat? Interviewed by Alastair Campbell in this month's GQ, Mr Salmond said of Vladimir Putin: "he's restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing". The interview was conducted before the Crimean 'referendum' that rubber-stamped the Russian invasion, but after the initial incursion that had already caused international alarm (Ben Riley-Smith has the story).  It opens up a second front for the No campaign; just what sort of foreign policy does Mr Salmond imagine for an independent Scotland? The remarks come just as the First Minister has come under fire from William Hague, who has written to Mr Salmond ahead of his much-publicised speech in Bruges. Mr Salmond claims that an independent Scotland could join the European Union quickly and painlessly under Article 28 - which allows treaty changes by "common accord" rather than unanimous vote. Mr Hague has written to ask, not unreasonably, which European member states, if any, support Mr Salmond's wizard wheeze. Demolishing the nationalist myth of a quick path to Europe could be devastating to the separatist campaign.
"The week that Ukip has just endured would finish off most political parties," writes Harry Wallop in today's paper. It has been another error-strewn week for Nigel Farage's party, from the amusing - Patrick O'Flynn, the party's press supremo, accidentally sent an expletive-laden text to its subject, the Times journalist Billy Kenber - to the rather more serious problems shown by its candidate selection. As Harry notes, the party appears not only to harbour the "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" of David Cameron's famous description, but a series of  "very much nastier pieces of work".   William Henwood, a Ukip council candidate, is the latest to hit the headlines, by responding to the comedian Lenny Henry's call for greater diversity in broadcasting by suggesting he  "go and live in a black country". That comes after last week's difficulties with Andre Lampitt and Mr Farage's difficult interview with Nick Robinson about his employment of his German wife as his secretary. Despite all this, the party is doing better in the polls than it has in its entire history (as the Guardian says on their front page). the party looks increasingly likely to come top in the Euro elections on the 22nd of May. Harry explains that Ukip's appeal has to be understood as a reaction to its populism, not its policies - as Mr Farage himself told the Guardian's Decca Aitkenhead on Saturday, they have very few -  or personnel. Attacks on either - such asJeremy Hunt's broadside against the party's members as "racist" and "un-British", which makes the second page of today's paper and page four of the Mail - tend to fall flat. As the Mail's leader says today, if the Westminster parties want to reel in Ukip, they "should try heeding voters’ wishes on such issues as uncontrolled immigration, human rights madness and the relentless surrender of our sovereignty to Brussels".
The long-term unemployed will have to scrub memorials, clean up monuments and help out at community and city farms or lose their benefits under the government's new Help to Work scheme. The scheme will target those who have been unemployed for at least three years; people who Esther McVey, the Minister for Employment, described on the Today programme as "the hardest to help". Jonathan Portes, a former chief economist at the DWP, speaking just before Miss McVey, suggested that the pilot's effects were slight. It's all part of the Tory message about helping people to get on and up: small wonder that the words "long-term economic plan" were used both by the PM when the scheme was announced and by Miss McVey on the radio this morning.
Frustration is growing with Boris Johnson. Asked by BBC Radio 5 Live if he intended to keep "fudging" the question of his Commons return, Mr Johnson replied: "Yes.".  It's an answer only the Mayor could get away with giving, and that's partly why the party leadership wants him back on board for the difficult task of defanging Nigel Farage and defeating Ed Miliband. Even Mr Johnson's supply of goodwill is not limitless, however. As Andrew Rawnsley observed over the weekend, there are some Tories "who are simply becoming tired with and frustrated by the whole soap opera". There are still plenty of associations who would love to have him, as shown by the eagerness to welcome him to Louth and Horncastle as well as Sir George Young's seat in North West Hampshire. It may come down to, Rawnsley argues, the question of whether or not Boris truly believes that Cameron will win.  John Rentoul, meanwhile,detects a canny resignation to David Cameron's wooing of Mr Johnson; "Cameron is making his peace with Johnson as Tony Blair did with Gordon Brown just before the 2005 election."
"Labour to ambush 'zombie government'" says page 2 of the Financial Times. Labour is planning a series of ambushes to keep Coalition ministers and MPs in the Commons and away from the campaign, but they've fallen foul of an ambush of their own. Labour are "too middle-class" to win over Ukip voters,  warns Lord Maurice Glasman, a key figure within the party's "Blue Labour" tendency. Lord Glasman was an influential guru in the early phase of Mr Miliband's leadership but fell out of favour for criticising the Leader of the Opposition for 'lacking energy'. Also making waves in today's Times is Jessica Asato, the former head of the Blairite pressure group Progress and now Chair of the Fabian Society. Ms Asato is also the PPC for Norwich North; target 67 on Labour's target list and the seat that Labour would have to carry to have a majority of one. She warns that not enough has been done to rebuild Labour's economic credibility. 
That will bring a smile to Nick Clegg, who wants to remain as Deputy Prime Minister for the rest of the decade - regardless of whether it is with David Cameron or Ed Miliband. He told Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times that he wanted to add "heart" to the Conservatives and "spine" to Labour; but he'll have to survive as leader of the Lib Dems first. A private briefing of the Liberal Democrat high command revealed that the party could be completely wiped out in the European election. The Liberals have form as far as disposing of leaders is concerned, and time is running out for Vince Cabble, the Business Secretary, to get the top job. If Mr Clegg's enemies within weren't bad enough, he was branded a "self-obsessed, revolting character" by Dominic Cummings, a former Gove spad, and faces an uphill battle to be included in the television debates. The DPM told the FT he struggles "to think of an even half-respectable excuse the Conservatives could come up with" to prevent a repeat of the debates.
CUT RED TAPE TO KICKSTART GROWTH, CPS SAYS"Cut taxes and red tape" is our splash today. Britain is not even amongst the top ten countries for entrepreneurs, a Centre for Policy Studies report finds. Growth is returning, but thoughts are turning to the best way to help people feel the benefits and blunt Ed Miliband's cost-of-living campaign. A package of tax cuts and deregulation could prove just the ticket.
A dangling modifier left the PM exposed to wags online:
@David_Cameron: It's unacceptable there's a loophole allowing paedophile "training manuals", that's why I want to protect children by making them illegal.
Latest YouGov poll:
Con 31%, Lab 36%, LD 9%, UKIP 15%
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BOURNEMOUTH: Labour leader Ed Miliband hosts shadow cabinet meeting. He will be joined by most of his top team in the afternoon. He will then lead a public meeting in the North Lanarkshire area.
1130 LONDON: Andy Coulson's cross-examination by the prosecution as the hacking trial continues.
1400 LONDON: Stop HS2 demonstrators protest opposite Houses of Parliament.
1430 LONDON: Home Office questions.
1515 LONDON: Public Accounts Committee hearing on Royal Mail sale.
2100 LONDON: Strike action begins on London's Underground.