Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Open for business..

Good morning. When David Cameron and George Osborne proclaim that Britain is open for business, does that include standing by and holding the door while an American giant helps itself to one of this country's national champions? Yesterday we had fun watching France scramble to prevent GE buying Alstom, then along came Pfizer with its £60bn mega-bid bid for AstraZeneca. The snap response from No 10 was "help yourself", or words to that effect: Britain is committed to nurturing an open economy, and that means keeping out of the market. But wise heads who recall the rows over Cadbury and Boots will keep an eye on the reaction this morning. "This time our spineless politicians must step in", says Alex Brummer in the Mail. "Battle for national champions" is the FT splash, bringing together the French and British cases. The Times leader is "Open for business", and contrasts the emotional political reactions in France to the calm among politicians here. Our business leader points out that decisions are ultimately for shareholders, not Governments. The FT cautions ministers that they mustn't allow all to be decided by crude tax arbitrage. "The government cannot afford to pursue laissez fairer at all costs…Broader national interests are at stake".
Chuka Umunna has rightly raised questions about potential risk to Britain's R&D base if Pfizer closes facilities in the pursuit of savings. Ian Read, the chief exec, has said he can't rule out jobs cuts as a result of the takeover. More interesting is Vince Cable's stress on his warning to Mr Read about securing high-skilled jobs and long-term investment. It is possible to imagine him saying more, not least if there is the slightest hint that the country's scientific base is in danger. That could make things interesting inside the Coalition. 
Back to the open door then. The Treasury argue that the takeover, if it goes ahead, is a vote of confidence in the UK, and a sign of success for the Chancellor's tax policy. Pfizer will keep the company's HQ in New York but will domicile it in the UK for tax purposes. It wants to lower its overall tax liability, and, according to the FT, wants to bring its headline tax rate form 27pc down to the 21pc AstraZeneca pays in London. Mr Osborne has cut corporation tax to 21pc here, whereas it is 35pc in the US. President Obama is said to be troubled that the American tax code encourages companies to move overseas, a complaint that was a familiar one here not so long ago. The Treasury point out that other companies are doing the same. In this case, we "lose" a national champion, but gain a new corporate taxpayer. Some might find this distasteful. Labour will doubtless talk of the "race to the bottom". The trick for Mr Osborne will be to explain why the advantage to the UK lies not in protecting its corporate giants, but making the UK the place companies want to be. 
"The more people stay together, the happier they'll be." That's Billy Connolly's verdict on the independence referendum ("The Big Yin wants Scotland to stay in" is the page 3 lead in the Times"), in a rather more positive spin on the union than Better Together has thus far managed. Yes as Jeremy Warner writes in his column today, the challenges of independence would be severe; a decade on, Scotland could "look much more like Greece than Norway", but, as Jeremy also notes, to regard the Scots as being sold a pipe dream by Alex Salmond is wrong - and patronising to boot. But there's a real sense of national identity triumphing over economic reality. That's not being helped by the invisibility of certain Labour figures. Douglas Alexander in particular is being singled out by critics of the Labour effort as conspicuously absent; while William Hague is fighting a rearguard action against Mr Salmond's claims on Scotland's EU membership, where is his shadow?  
Not everyone yearns for a Commons return for Boris Johnson. The FT's leader counsels that the Mayor linger a little longer in London. Leading the national capital is too big a job for an MP, the FT warns, and reminds Mr Johnson of the fate of some of the other former frontrunners. "The Tory party’s history is studded with heir apparents," the pink paper sighs, "who failed to seize the crown". That's something that will be all-too-clear in Boris' mind. He is now certain not to be the first Johnson in Downing Street.  “A little piece of me dies, but otherwise I rejoice in his success," the Mayor said, not of the PM, but his brother, Jo, in aninterview with Total Politics
HS2 passed its second reading by a heavy margin, with 452 ayes to just 41 for the noes, with David Cameron noted for his absence from the vote. Cheryl Gillian's amendment did slightly better,being defeated by 451 ayes to 50 noes. So it's full speed ahead for HS2, although there may be a few leaves on the line just yet.  35 Tory MPs rebelled on the night, while a further 47 missed the vote or abstained. The numbers are rather higher, though, because, thanks to Labour's support, the Whips' Office were able to take a relatively relaxed attitude to rebels and abstentions. That a way out was found for Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Grieve and others has caused consternation amongst some backbenchers, who note that Jesse Norman was fired from the policy board for abstaining on the Syria vote. Rather more worrying for Number 10 is David Lidington's resignation threat, which makes today's front page and the inside lead of the Daily Mirror. Mr Lidington wants a tunnel to extend through the whole of the Chilterns, which would send costs rising, potentially undermining cross-party support for the line. Mr Cameron's absence from the vote has been jumped on by Labour.  A source said: "this shows a failure to lead following a failure to even try to quell an open rebellion".
Ephraim Hardcastle reports that David Davis is hosting a reception this evening for the recently-acquitted Nigel Evans. It's not the first such soiree that Mr Davis has thrown; he did the same for Nadine Dorries after her trip down under for I'm A Celebrity, and continues to be a cheerleader for Andrew Mitchell, whose tenure at the Whip's Office came to an abrupt end over Plebgate  What is Mr Davis up to? "He  likes to keep in with backbenchers, but mainly it's about agitating Cameron." explains a colleague. It's Nick Clegg who should really be worried - the Independent' s poll of polls puts them on their lowest share ever, and you know what they say about old men in a hurry...
Growth is back! Not just to Britain, but also to the Cameron family garden. David Cameron is converting some of the farmland in his Oxfordshire home into a garden, Sebastian Shakespeare reveals. But don't worry; the PM will still find time to sit back and chillax: he's invested in a ride-on lawnmower similar to the one preferred by the Duchess of Cambridge's father, Michael Middleton. 
"Cynicism verging on nihilism",  Janan Ganesh writes in today's FT, "is the closest thing modern Britain has to a national ideology." That can put the PM, who, as I say in my column today, has long used optimism as his calling card, out of step with the mood of today's angry times and the politics of "sod it". Small wonder that some Tories would nod along to Steve Richards in today's Independent, who suggests that a narrow loss, and a new leader, would be the best way forward for the Conservatives. But a victory for Ed Miliband's Brownite politics of division, assisted by the smallminded nationalism of Messrs Salmond and Farage, would be bad for Britain. 
"Cross-party campaign to brand Ukip as racist" is the Guardian splash today. But is insulting Ukip the best way to defeat them? Jacqui Smith isn't convinced. Writing for Progress, the Blairite pressure group, the former Home Secretary asks if the political class has forgotten the lesson of  'Bigot-gate'. "Telling them they are wrong – and worse, closet racists – is unlikely to win their support." she notes.
THE SAJID JAVID SHOWThat a Conservative rising star should be praised by in the leader column of the Daily Mail is almost to be expected; particularly when that Conservative speaks so eloquently on aspiration, getting on and rewarding success as Sajid Javid. Getting Polly Toynbe on side, however, is a measure of how well Mr Javid is doing in his post. He has mastered his brief remarkably quickly and avoided the bear traps that new arts ministers often blunder into, much to the delight of much of the arts lobby, who may come to cheer the resignation of Maria Miller louder than most.
Even the backroom plotting happens on Twitter nowadays:
@Mike_Fabricant: Meanwhile, I have been busy organising tellers etc for the NO vote on #HS2 tonight.(Never thought I would have to do this against own Party)
Latest YouGov poll:
Con 32%, Lab 37%, LD 10%, UKIP 15%
In the Telegraph
Best of the rest
Paul Waugh and Sam Macrory - Boris Johnson: Cities slicker

WALES: The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to visit Wales.
0930 LONDON: Vince Cable at Business, Innovation and Skills committee hearing on Royal Mail. The Business Secretary will give evidence along with other witnesses including Minister of State Michael Fallon, Mark Russell of the Shareholder Executive and Lazard chief executive William Rucker. Room 15, Palace of Westminster.
1130 LONDON: Stop HS2 demonstrators protest opposite Houses of Parliament.
1430 LONDON:  Defence Select Committee hearing on treatment of casualties.
1515 LONDON: Public Accounts Committee hearing on Royal Mail sale.