Friday, 28 February 2014

Is Cameron delusional..

Good morning. She came, she saw, she conquered. The German chancellor impressed Westminster, even as she delivered - in English - the bad news: those hoping for a promise of major EU reforms were to be disappointed. 'Nein nein nein' is the Mirror's headline, 'Merkel dampens Dave's EU dream'is the Mail's. The pictures combine flirty shots of Dave and Angela with monoglot Brit politicians relying on headphones to understand her. Quentin Letts heard the "murmuring, purring pleasure of Westminster's massed Europhiles". I was particularly taken by the extracts from the German coverage in the Times, not least the unnamed source who told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung "Cameron's policy can be summed up in three words, says an observer, 'Kissing Merkel's Ass'." Downing Street has not lost its optimism, however, and yesterday was texting people like me with extracts form her speech - "it's doable", "where there's a will there's a way", "one can find solutions".
It's fair to say that Mrs Merkel was more accommodating than the briefing had suggested. She accepts the need for a new treaty and changes. She specifically said free movement could be looked at, to deal with benefit tourism. But as the dire/normal (strike out as your outlook dictates) immigration numbers showed yesterday, benefit tourism is not the issue: our fellow European citizens are making use of their right under EU law (to which we are party) to travel to the UK to find work. And you can bet your leiderhosen that not just Mrs Merkel, but none of the other EU member states, will countenance a watering down of that principle.
What happens now? Should Mr Cameron adjust his sights to manage expectations on his own side? Or should he bet large, demand loads and hope for the best after 2015? We should keep reminding ourselves that any renegotiation, and subsequent referendum, will only happen if Dave is returned with a majority. It could be said that everything he says now, every pose he adopts, has the general election in mind. Tough talk, he hopes, will bolster him against Ukip and those on his own side who will never be satisfied with whatever deal he strikes. I wonder if one day we will look back at today as a great example of delusion built on optimism. The delusion is that the EU will give Mr Cameron a deal that remotely satisfies his backbench fans; the optimism is that the Tories will win next year and put him in a position to negotiate. Still, we can't fault Mr Cameron for trying. He pulled out all the stops yesterday short of, well, you know, and it seems to be delivering results. This is a long slog and it would be wrong to make bets on the outcome now.

The fallout to yesterday's immigration statistics - showing a 58,000 net rise in net migration to 212,000 - plays out in today's papers. Dave's target to get net migration down towards "tens of thousands" has never seemed further off - but that's a "good thing", Vince Cable provocatively says on the front page of the Mail. The Business Secretary, in words designed to antagonise Dave, says that "those figures are good news because the reason net immigration is going up is because fewer British people are emigrating and surely that’s a good thing – people are getting jobs here." While none of the headlines are good for the PM - "200,000 more flood into UK", says The Sun - the Guardian focuses on the Home Secretary: "May's target in tatters after surprise jump in migration to Britain from EU". It even warns that "If the upward trend continues she may leave office with a higher net migration figure than the 244,000 estimated when she became home secretary in 2010." That would be great news for Ukip - but terrible for the Home Secretary's chances of cultivating enough support in the party to be a viable contender to replace Dave as leader.
YouGov poll in The Times today suggests mixed feelings for the suggestion that David Cameron would prefer a minority government to another coalition deal. Tory voters narrowly prefer a minority government to a second coalition deal - but 87% of Tories would prefer another coalition to the prospect of Ed Miliband becoming PM. And the electorate seems sick of coalition: only 17% say either a Lib-Lab or Con-Lib coalition would be their preferred choice after the next election.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is today recalled for an emergency meeting on the handling of on-the-run Republican suspects, though Peter Robinson has said that he welcomes the inquiry into the secret letters and has withdrawn his threat to resign as First Minister. In The Times, Jonathan Powell writes that "John Downey’s release has nothing to do with an amnesty or a secret deal and everything to do with a cock-up" and says that "it was no secret" that the Labour Government had dealt with paramilitary suspects as parts of negotiations with Sinn Féin. Speaking on Today, Theresa Villiers said that "Everyone who's received a letter should be well aware that they do not confer immunity from prosecution."  WHAT DOES HARMAN DO NEXT?
There's trouble simmering for Labour this morning. The Sun's front page - "Labour chiefs: It's OK to have sex with 10-year-olds" - is devoted to exposing that Patricia Hewitt and Jack Dromey were members of an NCCL committee advocating transforming under-age sex laws. Miss Hewitt has apologised, saying that the NCCL was "naive and wrong" to affiliate with the Paedophile Information Exchange and sayd that "I take responsibility for the mistakes we made." The question now is: does Harriet Harman do the same?
McCLUSKEY'S WARNING TO LABOURFurther trouble for Labour comes with Len McCluskey warning that "there are some people internally in the Labour party that are beginning to panic" because of Unite's decision to consider a £1.5m cut in its annual affiliation fees. Labour's special conference will meet tomorrow to agree reforms in the party's relationship with the unions, with insiders adamant that this will be a far more significant reform than Clause 4.
It's Ukip Spring Conference time (they're off to Torquay), but Nigel Farage isn't trying to dampen expectations: he describes the European and local elections in May as "the moment we have been waiting for" and will be "the biggest political shock in modern British history". As I've noted before, Mr Farage risks creating a rod for his own back. If Ukip fail to come top then, no matter how many votes they get, it will be regarded as a failure. In the Guardian, Mr Farage says that "We're whistling in the wind if we think we can implement a Eurosceptic agenda from within the European parliament." Meanwhile Anna Soubry claims that she "wobbled" the Ukip leader when she took him on in Question Time a few months ago - and admits that "In my patch if people vote UKIP, I ain’t coming back here because they will let the Labour guy in."
The Osborne-IDS row continues. Allies of Mr Duncan Smith describe reports of Mr Osborne "declaring victory" in the skirmish over child poverty as "pretty criminal". They add that the battle "was about personalities rather than policies." If Mr Cameron wins a second term, is there any way that Mr Osborne and Mr Duncan Smith could work together for another five years?BURNHAM WANTS LABOUR TO REGAIN ITS NORTHEN SOUL
In an interview with Total Politics, Andy Burnham calls on Labour to regain its Northern Soul: "There is a sense to a lot of people that the kind of ‘London set’ slightly pushes people with Northern voices out a little bit. That’s probably always been the way, but it’s still a bit of a shame. If you look at the House of Lords, oh God, it’s so London-dominated, it’s unbelievable. I think it’s quite frightening to be honest. It’s still quite rare isn’t it to hear Northern accents on frontbenches?" Mr Burnham is trying to paint himself as the true representative of Labour's working-class history - and, perhaps, reminding his party of the pitfalls of parachuting spads into safe seats that they have no connection with.

The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 
Latest YouGov poll: Con 34%, Lab 39%, Ukip 11%; Lib Dems 12%
This # will never take off:
@GregMulholland1: A proper #frost this morning! Gloves & hats required!
In the TelegraphFraser Nelson - Free schools will stumble – the test is how well they recover
Jeremy Warner - Our economy’s getting bigger, but not better
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40th anniversary of snap General Election that ousted Edward Heath

Foreign Secretary William Hague hosting UK-China strategic dialogue meeting.

Green Party conference. St George's Hall, St George's Place, L1 1JJ 

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announcement on dementia care. 

Ukip spring conference, Torquay. Nigel Farage speaks at 12pm.

Backbenchers don't believe Cameron..

Good morning. Or should I say guten Morgen. Angela Merkel comes to London today to urge Britain to remain in the EU, to reinforce the relationship between the two countries, and to face questions about "naughty nephew" Dave and his dream of a major renegotiation of the EU's framework. Francois Hollande was asked an awkward question about his sex life; Mrs Merkel may well be asked a tricky one about Mr Cameron and his European tastes. She brings something else too: experience of coalition. The PM was asked about it at PMQs yesterday by Richard Bacon, who suggested he should consider a German 'grand coalition' with Labour to shaft the Lib Dems. Mr Cameron voiced his admiration for Mrs Merkel and in particular her ability to win elections, but concluded: "The idea of a grand coalition is a bit too much for me".
At which point you could see in the Chamber various Tory MPs nodding agreement. My report of a few days ago that the PM is considering public pledge to rule out a coalition whatever the outcome of the next election has set the cat among the pigeons. Danny Finkelstein and Matthew d'Ancona yesterday said in terms that the Tories would be mad to limit their options.The FT has done a leader on the theme today - "ruling out a coalition would be irresponsible of any party". It points out in particular to Mr Cameron that "as the head of the coalition trashing multi-party rule is tantamount to trashing everything he has done in office". Nick Clegg yesterday dismissed the Tory move as a symptom of tribal politics.
What's worth pointing out is the reaction on the Tory benches. From the conversations I've had, the idea of ruling out a coalition has been met largely with disbelief or contempt. It's the contempt bit that I find interesting. On the right, the reaction has been to laugh out loud. "He's delusional," one MP tells me, "if he thanks we will taken in by this". The view seems to be that offering a no-coalition pledge would do nothing to win extra votes. The most telling reaction I've encountered has been among those MPs who just don't believe him. They say that Mr Cameron may well make the offer, but on the morning after the election he will be guided by the numbers, and if necessary will do a deal. It's this that is most damaging to Mr Cameron: many of his MPs will not accept his word. They are in the position of Gordon Brown, when he told Tony Blair: "There is nothing that you could say to me now that I would ever believe".
So when he meets Mrs Merkel, Mr Cameron might well ask her the secrets of her success, and in particular how she has come to be in power for so long. The biggest gift she can make him is her tips on the art of the deal. Which would include not revealing one's negotiating position too early, keeping red ones in reserve, and never saying never.

Iain Duncan Smith is speaking to the House today about the Government's child poverty strategy - but he won't be able to mention a new formal definition of child poverty. George Osborne has got his way in blocking IDS's plans, the latest stage in the ongoing feud between the two. But they come together to co-author an op-ed in the Guardian, writing that "To see why Labour's measure of poverty – defined as 60% of median income – is so discredited consider these perverse outcomes. Measured child poverty fell because the Great Recession reduced median incomes, but in the real world nobody's life was improved by that. Equally, raising the state pension results in higher measured child poverty. That doesn't make any sense." Few will be fooled by the spirit of co-operation - tensions from Mr Osborne saying "You see Iain giving presentations, and realise he's just not clever enough", as reported in Matthew d'Ancona's book on the Coalition, remain.
A rise in the minimum wage is happening - but it falls well short of the £7 rate that had been briefed. The Low Pay Commission recommends that the minimum wage be raised from £6.31 to £6.50 on October 1, which is the first above-inflation increase in five years (a 3% rise compared with forecast inflation of 2.3%) in five years. It's the sort of positive story that both Coalition partners will try to claim the credit for. Still, the question remains: is a 19p increase really enough to steal Labour's thunder on living standards?

This is a critical development in the independence debate: Standard Life has become the first major business to warn that it could leave an independent Scotland. Its annual report, published today, outlines contingency plans to relocate operations to England, "in order to ensure continuity and to protect the interests of our stakeholders" as the chairman, Gerry Grimstone, puts it. It constitutes another blow to the economic credibility of the independence campaign. Alex Salmond may think he can win by appealing to voters' hearts - but voters won't put nationalist romance before their jobs. But the significance extends beyond Scotland: if businesses speaking out against independence proves a successful tactic, it is one that will be at the heart of the campaign to stay in the EU if there is any referendum. As a shadow Cabinet minister puts it: "the chief executives of Ford, Honda and Nissan will decide whether Britain remains in the EU."
Theresa Villiers is holding talks with Peter Robinson over Mr Robinson's threat to resign as Northern Ireland first minister after the collapse of the case against the suspected Hyde Park bomber John Downey. Mr Robinson is demanding a judicial inquiry into secret letters given to 187 Irish republican paramilitary suspects. On the Today programme, former first minister David Trimble said that "we need to find out how this process came into existence and operated" and warned: "You can't have a situation where Sinn Fein and the government get together to undermine the Good Friday Agreement."    RBS PREPARE £500 MILLION BONUSES
The Today programme has been giving decent airtime to complaints (recorded in the FT) about RBS preparing to award £500 million in bonuses while recording an annual loss of £8 billion. Although a decrease on last year's £679 million is highly probable, Labour still spies an opportunity to cause some awkwardness for the Government, with shadow financial secretary to the Treasury Cathy Jamieson saying that "Taxpayers will be staggered if huge bonuses continue to be paid out at a time when significant losses are being made."
"I believe man-made climate change is one of the greatest threats this country and the world faces." Those words from David Cameron in PMQs yesterday would not have pleased all his Conservative Cabinet colleagues, as I note in my blog, and are a rare recent example of Mr Cameron taking an unequivocal position that is at odds with the view of many on his benches. But what happens, I wonder, when a Cabinet figure - Owen Paterson or Michael Gove, perhaps - comes out and says climate change isn't all it's cracked up to be?
The former Labour Cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt is facing questions over alleged links with the Paedophile Information Exchange after it emerged that the National Council for Civil Liberties campaign group that she used to be general secretary of were prepared to offer legal advice to adults who wanted to have sex with 14 years olds.The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 
Latest YouGov poll: Con 34%, Lab 40%, Ukip 11%; Lib Dems 10%
Once more unto the breach:
@jreedmp: Ah, my old foe, the Caledonian Sleeper...we meet again.
In the TelegraphPeter Oborne - We can get rid of Assad or fight al-Qaeda – not both
Benedict Brogan - David Cameron believes man-made climate change is the greatest threat we face. Does it matter if his colleagues don't?
James Kirkup - Angela Merkel in London: Once again, our future rests on German leadership
Telegraph View - Merkel’s visit is a chance to explain our EU vision
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Fraser Nelson - Cameron’s Northern Alliance
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Iain Duncan Smith to announce new Government child poverty strategy in written statement. House of Commons.

Sutton Trust report on school catchment areas.

9am Call Clegg on LBC 97.3 radio. 

10am Nick Clegg speech on the Government's support for young people. Southfields Academy, 333 Merton Road, London.

11am Energy minister Michael Fallon speaks to Institution of Civil Engineers nuclear power conference. One Great George Street, London.

**12pm German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits London. Approximate timings: Address to both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster at 1200. Arrival at 10 Downing Street at 1310 for working lunch. Press conference at 10 Downing Street 1435, audience with Queen at Buckingham Palace 1600.**

6.10pm The BFI celebrates the 30th anniversary of Spitting Image

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Merkel bears few gifts for Cameron..

Good morning. We've been given a first draft of what Angela Merkel will say when she pitches up tomorrow for her red carpet and tea session. The Guardian - "Merkel ready to offer Cameron limited EU opt-outs" - has the detail. And there's not much of it. It certainly doesn't look remotely enough to appease the EU-phobes on Mr Cameron's backbenches, although you might well say that nothing short of withdrawal would put a smile on their faces.
The German chancellor has a few goodies to offer Dave. She accepts the idea of a new or revised treaty - she calls it "targeted" treaty change - and suggests it could include a new clause to protect Britain and other non-euro states against being outvoted on single market issues by those in the euro-zone; she's considering limited opt-outs, specifically for the NHS on the Working Time Directive (this is arguably the most interesting bit); and also less intrusive application of EU regulations (this on the other hand sounds particularly woolly).
Bloomberg - "Merkel said to call for stronger EU in disappointment to Cameron" - is also gloomy about the prospects for Dave. "The expectations of the British press are clearly too high," it quotes her spokesman Steffen Seibert as saying. It adds the detail that she had planned to deliver her address to both Houses of Parliament in English, but now will do most of it in German. Meanwhile, the FT's leader - "Merkel comes to Little England" - is predictably pink in outlook. Pointing out Britain's absence from the Ukraine crisis, it concludes: "Ms Merkel will get the red carpet from a British government with narrowing diplomatic ambitions and an increasingly introverted approach to Europe. This is a Britain slowly moving to the sidelines of world affairs."
What is plain is that major change, and repatriation of powers, is not on the German agenda. For the moment at least. The argument boils down to this: Downing Street and some Tories believe that political reality will drive Germany, and others, to accept greater change as a price for keeping Britain in the EU. Most other people, particularly those steeped in the murk of European politics, say that it is delusional to think so, that it is Mr Cameron who is weak and who cannot command sufficient support across the Channel to achieve anything bar the most cosmetic of changes. Some Tories of course think that is his secret aim, that he wants just enough to be able to parade it as a change worth voting for in a referendum. On the eve of Ms Merkel's visit it looks like No10 will have a hard job to make what she will say look like anything that Tory MPs are clamouring for..

The Times ratchets up the pressure on Peter Bone. It reports - again, on the front page - that funds raised from the sale of his mother-in-law's house were paid into the bank account of Mr Bone’s daughter, before being moved to accounts controlled by the Conservative MP, and are now the subject of a criminal investigation. The Times alleges that Mr Bone was heavily indebted and owed nearly £200,000 on a series of credit cards - had he been declared bankrupt, he would have been forced to resign as an MP. Mr Bone has a majority of 11,000 in Wellingborough.
Harriet Harman escapes the front page of the Mail (she has to make do with page five) but the pressure on her remains after she expressed "regret" over the links of a paedophile group with the National Council for Civil Liberties.The Mail uses its leader to attack the "many like her on the Left who believe there is no public interest in knowing that Opposition frontbenchers were once prepared to tolerate these predatory paedophiles." In the Guardian, Zoe Williams says that the deputy Labour leader "was right not to apologise: to do so would have been to give credence to this story, which is no more than a tenuous smear campaign. It's not news; it's not even new." Meanwhile Roy Greenslade warns against getting into a scrap with the Mail, though his claim that "about 40% of its readers vote Labour" will come as a surprise to many. In 2010, only 16% of Mail readers supported Labour.

David Skelton takes to the Guardian to warn Conservatives against any deal with Ukip, and the notion that the path to a majority for Dave is as simple as adding Tory and Ukip votes together - 48% of Ukippers say that they would never back the Tories. New Ipsos-Mori figures also show that 46% of semi and unskilled manual workers and 40% of skilled working class voters would never vote for the party. And the Conservatives will have to do rather better than the new Sir John Major apprenticeship programme to change that. The Times embarrassingly reveals that one of the new apprentices is the son of a Tory candidate, and another is already an intern for a Tory MP.
That didn't take long. If one of the desired effects of Dave publicly considering ruling out a coalition with the Lib Dems was getting Labour to consider doing the same, then CCHQ will be heartened by Len McCluskey's comments that "if they are the biggest party then my view is Ed should have the courage of his convictions and govern on a minority government." The Conservatives will welcome anything that turns the election into a starker Dave v Ed contest. In The Times, Daniel Finkelstein says that it would be foolish to close off one route to government, and that the decision could tie the Tories up in knots: "Does David Cameron promise that he will insist on an EU referendum if he remains Prime Minister? And will this promise hold even if the Conservatives are not in power alone?" Dan Hodges offers the two coalition partners a similar warning. "If they spend the next 14 months highlighting the differences and divisions that have existed between them – or even go as far as some of Mr Cameron’s allies clearly want, and dismiss a future coalition outright – then there is only one logical conclusion the voters can draw. That the grand coalition experiment has been a failure. And if they conclude that, then the sole beneficiary will be Ed Miliband."TOP TORY DONOR HAS HAD ENOUGH
There's some very bad news for the Tories hidden away in Sebastian Shakespeare's Mail diary: hedge fund owner Sir Michael Hintze, who has loaned the party, £2.5 million, reportedly wants his money back. A source explains that Sir Michael "is deeply upset with the party’s promotion of gay marriage; it grates with his Catholicism. And as a tax-cutting free marketeer, he’d hoped to see a more radical economic agenda."TESSA JOWELL: MPS AREN'T SPECIAL
The national treasure that is Tessa Jowell gave the latest Speaker's Lecture last night on Parliament and the Press. She had lots to say and I've highlighted the key bits on my blog. The stand out line is her reminder to MPs that they shouldn't think they are entitled to special treatment. She also declares herself a big fan of "the economist Daniel Knowles", which just goes to show how far the Morning Briefing can take you.
Ed Balls will be chuffed at an endorsement from an unlikely source this morning. Peter Mandelson has praised his old foe as having the "economic brain power, financial discipline and global outlook" that Britain needs and tries to turn the relentless jeering at Mr Balls from the Tory benches into an asset: the Shadow Chancellor "is under attack from the Bullingdon boys at the top of the Tory party because he has the strength of intellect to challenge them." A fundraising speech also contained some friendly advice to Mr Balls: "Keep the lasagne flowing, keep up the marathons and the piano recitals." The intervention is a reminder of the success of Ed Miliband in avoiding the Labour Civil Wars that have characterised their previous electoral defeats.
The Sun spies victory in its "Ditch handouts to rich" campaign, with George Osborne's new welfare spending cap set to include means-testing the winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and TV licences. Politically this closes off one of the very few areas in which Labour has promised additional spending cuts (even if all sides know that the sums are puny). But how much will it save?The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 
Latest YouGov poll: Con 33%, Lab 39%, Ukip 11%; Lib Dems 10%
Tom Watson warns of fickle friends:
@tom_watson: Peter Mandelson backs Ed Balls: Well, he does today and only in the Guardian.
In the TelegraphDan Hodges - Everyone is fed up with Clegg, but ruling out a coalition is mad
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David Skelton - A Tory pact with Ukip would bring disaster
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond attending meeting of Nato Defence Ministers in Brussels.

Foreign Secretary William Hague on visit to USA. 

9.30am Schools Minister David Laws giving evidence to the Commons education select committee.

10.45am Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg monthly press conference. Dover House (Scotland Office), 66 Whitehall.

11am Taxpayers' Alliance launch campaign to scrap the Alcohol Duty Escalator. Blue Boar, 45 Tothill Street.

12pm Prime Minister's Questions. 

From 2pm the murderers of soldier Lee Rigby will be sentenced. The Old Bailey

2.30pm Commons Scottish Affairs Committee to hear evidence on Scottish independence. 

3pm Expert witnesses give evidence to Commons Environment Committee on winter floods.

7.30pm Minister for Cities Greg Clark speech on Conservatism and Cities to Bright Blue think tank. Meeting Room C, 1 Parliament Street

Cameron to reject 2015 Coalition..

Good morning. "They'll roll him if he tries." So said one of Mr Cameron's closest political advisers when I asked about the prospect for another coalition recently. My interlocutor meant Tory MPs, specifically those who are permanently on the look-out for an opportunity to do in the Prime Minister. Number 10 knows it has to prepare for the possibility that the Tories will end up as the largest party at the next election, but short of a majority. The assumption has long been that in that case Mr Cameron would seek a new arrangement with Nick Clegg. But his MPs have other ideas. They have secured an understanding that this time it would be put to a vote of the parliamentary party, a vote the PM would be likely to win. The worry in No 10 is that the irreconcilables would use the aftermath of another inconclusive election - another Mr Cameron failed to win - as a reason to come for his head. Which is why, as I set out in my column this morning, the Tory leader is considering a manifesto pledge to rule out a coalition altogether. He would tell voters beforehand that he would not do a deal to stay in power; he would instead seek to lead a minority administration, and accept the likelihood of another general election within months.
The argument that Mr Cameron is making is that voters want single-party government and will respond to being given a clear choice at the polls. In reply some might say that the voters could well take badly to having their options foreclosed on them, or that Mr Cameron would be foolish to limit his room for manoeuvre before the election. The art of politics is about keeping options open, etc… But he is motivated too by the appeal of a pledge that will delight many of his MPs and, he hopes, head off any danger to his position. The risk then is that he looks weak, forced into a position by necessity, not by choice. You will have spotted that there are a lot of ifs lined up here. Current odds say Mr Cameron needn't bother and that Labour will form the next government. What's telling here, for my money, is the clear message from Mr Cameron's circle that whatever others may say, he has had enough of the Lib Dems and of coalition, and doesn't want another one. It speaks volumes about the state of his relations with many of his parliamentary colleagues that quite a few won't believe him.

The realisation that Angela won't give Dave what he wants (see my blog yesterday) is decidely awkward for the PM. He has pinned all his hopes for EU reform onto support from Ms Merkel; if she doesn't play ball, Dave will have nowhere to hide. Rachel Sylvester says that the German Chancellor can't give the PM what he needs - and that Dave hasn't done enough to build bridges in the past. "According to one diplomat, she has still not forgotten that Britain 'sided with America' when it came to intelligence-gathering that involved the hacking of her own phone. Nor has she entirely forgiven the Tory leader for leaving the EPP, the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament."Janan Ganesh is similarly gloomy about how much Ms Merkel could help Dave, saying "The real error is to overrate her capacity to deliver change, even if she wanted it." In a fascinating piece, Paul Goodman examines the complex politics of European Parliament alliances and explains why closer links between Conservatives and Germany's anti-euro party the Alternative für Deutschland could be in the offing in the European Parliament - even though riling Angela Merkel would be one result.
SIR JOHN BATTLES TORY TOFF IMAGEA few weeks ago, I called for Sir John Major to intervene in the battle over Scotland's future. That hasn't happened just yet, but Sir John will appear with Grant Shapps today to launch a new Conservative apprenticeship scheme named in his honour and laud "a political party which would help give me a step up in life, rather than a hand out: the Conservative Party." The Tories are aware of how important Sir John could be in their battle against their "toff" image. In my blog, I examine Dave's difficulty escaping his school. MeanwhileTim Wigmore explains why Tory Old Etonian MPs - who numbered 73 in 1963 but only 19 today - are a dying breed.
Harriet Harman used her Newsnight appearance yesterday to accuse the Daily Mail of running a "politically-motivated smear campaign" against her. But the Mail isn't stopping questioning the Miss Harman, Jack Dromey and Patricia Hewitt's alleged links to a paedophile group, using its front page to exclaim "But Still They Won't Say Sorry".
Peter Bone gets it in the neck from The Times, who say that Mr Bone is under police investigation over an alleged £100,000 benefits fraud linked to his mother-in-law’s finances. Mr Bone has taken to Twitter to begin his defence, saying: "The Times allegation: We have done nothing wrong. The claims made are without foundation. A full statement will be issued in due course."
MAIL WARNS AGAINST UKRAINE BLANK CHEQUEThe Mail lays into George Osborne's offer of "a chequebook to help the people of Ukraine rebuild their country", quoting a warning from Bill Cash that the potential cost to British taxpayers was "so horrendous as to be completely unacceptable". First the floods and now Ukraine - Tory comments about cheques really aren't playing out very well at the moment. Mac's cartoon is particularly coruscating today. William Hague is in Washington today to discuss Ukraine with John Kerry.

There was more bad news for Alex Salmond yesterday. Paul Krugman, the economist loved by many Lefties, mocked the plans for Scottish independence, saying that "the Bank of England would be under no obligation to act as lender of last resort to Scottish banks". The FT uses its front page to quote Alistair Darling's claim that the "sterlingisation" of Scotland would put the country in the same category as Panama.
Labour will announce today that the party will stage a family-friendly workplace summit with employers: the issue has risen up the party's agenda after an IPPR report that suggested that getting mothers back to work could give the economy a potential £1.5 billion a year boost. The promise of action could also help further strengthen the party's grip over the female vote. But lets hope there isn't a mention of "One Nation" at the announcement: Stella Creasy has said that "If you ever met people from Walthamstow you wouldn't tell them anything like that because they'd quite quickly put you in your place." Chris Leslie is also speaking at 10am about Labour's zero-based spending review. Will there be an acknowledgement of the tough choices that lie ahead?The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter 
Latest YouGov poll: Con 33%, Lab 38%, Ukip 13%; Lib Dems 10%
Stella doesn't let CCHQ's Twitter operation rile her:
@stellacreasy: @CCHQPress aw *pinches random tory intern press officer cheek* you do keep trying don't you...such a shame it makes you look needy....BEST COMMENTIn the TelegraphBenedict Brogan - David Cameron’s election gamble could electrify British politics
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Rachel Sylvester - Mrs Merkel can’t give Cameron what he needs
Paul Goodman - Cameron must not dampen this Eurosceptic momentum
Janan Ganesh - Cameron overestimates Merkel’s vim for EU reform
WASHINGTON DC: Foreign Secretary William Hague visit to USA. Mr Hague will meet Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss Ukraine.
1000 LONDON: Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie speech on Labour's zero-based review of spending. Social Market Foundation, 11 Tufton Street
1030 LONDON: Commons Culture Committee takes evidence on future of the BBC. Witnesses: RadioCentre, Bauer Radio and Global Radio; KM Group, The Newspaper Society and Society of Editors Thatcher Room, Portcullis House
1430 LONDON: Health minister Dan Poulter at Health select committee on database. Room 15, House of Commons
1530 LONDON: Damian Green at Home Affairs committee on progress of Police and Crime Commissioners. Witnesses include Ann Barnes, Kent Police and Crime Commissioner, Kent Chief Constable Alan Pughsley and Policing minister Damian Green. The Thatcher Room, Portcullis House
1530 LONDON: Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and SW England council leaders appear before House of Commons Transport Committee on the flooding. Wilson Room, Portcullis House

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

Friday, 21 February 2014

Clegg v Farage on EU..

Good morning. When Nigel Farage appears at 9am on LBC Radio this morning, we will find out whether Mr Farage will agree to a live debate on Britain's membership of the EU with Nick Clegg. Mr Clegg yesterday challenged the Ukip leader to the debate: "I hope he would take up my challenge to debate, once and for all, publicly: should we be in the European Union, which I believe means that we have more people in work than would otherwise be the case, we keep ourselves safer because we can go after cross-border crime and terrorism, it means we can look after the environment in the way that we can't on our own?"
The manoeuvre is the latest example of Mr Clegg unashamedly labelling the Lib Dems "the party of in" at the European elections. On one level, it is easy to see the risk in a Eurosceptic country. But perhaps there is method to the madness: the calculation is that, while Europhiles are a minority, at the moment they don't have anyone to represent their voice. And ardent Eurosceptics, after all, were hardly likely to be attracted to the Lib Dems anyway. It's also about defining the Lib Dems: in the electorate's eyes, they are a blank space ripe for smearing, so anything that detracts from that will be welcomed. In seeking a tête-à-tête with Mr Farage, Mr Clegg is seeking to present himself as brave and courageous, leaving David Cameron and Ed Miliband on the sidelines looking scared. Mr Farage's response will be intriguing. Ducking the challenge would not look good, but Mr Farage has far more to lose from debating Mr Clegg than the Lib Dem leader. In itself, that is a mark of the state of flux that British politics is in.

The President of the Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, says a deal has been reached with the opposition to end the country's crisis; early reports suggest that the deal includes a coalition government, constitutional change and early presidential elections. The front pages focus on the horrors: yesterday was the "bloodiest day" in the conflict, as we describe it, with at least 29 people dying. It's well worth reading David Blair's harrowing report from the front line:  "After the security forces had gone to such lengths to terrorise and break their enemies, the end result was that the protesters were still the masters of the Maidan. They regained every inch of ground lost on Wednesday, which was previously the bloodiest day of the battle." For the Coalition, the challenge is how to respond to what reeks of a Vladimir Putin putsch; the words of our leader - "Justice and human rights are universal principles, not ones that stop at the borders of Russia’s sphere of influence" - ring true. David Cameron called Mr Putin yesterday evening to discuss "the terrible situation", but has the Prime Minister left too much of the heavy lifting to other countries?
The handling of the floods comes in for a new bout of criticism today, with 17 bodies, including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Institution of Environmental Sciences weighing in with a letter to The Telegraph calling for a complete rethink of the planning system to avoid a repeat of the flooding crisis. Ed Balls adds to the criticism in an article for The Telegraph, writing that "Rather than the short-termist salami-slicing of budgets we have seen, we need instead to make long-term decisions now that can save money in the future", though such an intervention carries the risk of Labour looking like they're trying to make political gains out of people's misery. Is any of the mud sticking to the Government? The ITV News / Comres poll showing that 63 per cent of the public think that the Government has emerged from the floods with a worse reputation for crisis management (only 7 per cent say it has got a better one) rather suggests so. The initial thinking that the floods had been a good crisis for Dave may need revisiting.   HAMMOND HAMMERED
Yesterday evening's Question Time was awkward for Philip Hammond: the Defence Secretary called Labour's Liz Kendall "Rachel" (thinking she was Rachel Reeves) not once but twice.That'll give more ammunition for Ed to lay into Dave's "women problem" but Mr Hammond's share price in the Government remains very high.
MORE CHEERLEADERS, PLEASEHelen Grant's interview with us is causing a stir. "There are some wonderful sports which you can do and perform to a very high level and I think those participating look absolutely radiant and very feminine such as ballet, gymnastics, cheerleading and even roller-skating," Miss Grant said, comments that have been seized upon by feminists. A pragmatic response to a real problem (the 1.8 million "gender gap" in sports participation rates) - or a clumsy and unhelpful intervention? Either way it's a story that will run for a few days.
BLEARS STANDS DOWNHazel Blears, the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is standing down as MP for Salford and Eccles after 18 years in the House at the next election, and says that she retires with a "heavy heart" to look after her mother. Mrs Blears has a majority of 5,725.
THE RETURN OF VOTE BLUE, GO GREEN?It's worth noting The Times story that picks up on George Osborne's support for fracking on environmental grounds: "Let’s see more development of fracking in the UK and the US, as that will help reduce carbon emissions." Could fracking yet be a case when "going for growth" and that old message - "Vote Blue to Go Green" - happily coincide?
Latest YouGov poll: Con 34%, Lab 39%, Ukip 12%; Lib Dems 9%
Rachel Reeves doesn't miss an open goal:
@RachelReevesMP: Am I on #bbcqt this evening? Apparently Philip Hammond thinks I am. Or maybe it was @leicesterliz...BEST COMMENTIn the TelegraphDan Hodges - For all their protests, Red Ed and his party are turning yellow
Ed Balls - Ministers need to make long-term decisions on flooding
Isabel Hardman - A tricky balance between Church and state
Telegraph View - Silence over Ukraine is no longer an option
Best of the rest
Philip Stephens - Europe needs to stop hiding under the covers
Steve Richards - It's no wonder David Cameron has alienated the church
Simon Heffer - Will the Church ever learn there is nothing moral about welfare dependency?
THE AGENDASYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: Chancellor George Osborne and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney attending G20 Finance and Central Bankers meeting.
BUCKINGHAMSHIRE: David Cameron to meet Dutch PM Mark Rutte. Chequers
0930 LONDON: Public sector borrowing figures for January are published by the Office for National Statistics.
0955 LONDON: Bedroom tax ruling. Court of Appeal judges announce their decision in an action by five disabled tenants who have asked the court to declare the Government's so-called "bedroom tax" regulations unlawful. The Royal Courts of Justice