Monthly Archives: November 2010

Martin Stabe

With the release this morning of data detailing every Whitehall payment above £25,000, some of the frustrations with analysing public data to which journalists have become accustomed were absent. Nevertheless, making sense of the mountain of data still posed significant technical challenges. Read more

UPDATE: Lord Young has resigned Read more

Notable names include: Fiona Shackleton (is this to make amends for Royal divorce business drying up?); Stewart Wood, the Oxford don turned Labour backroom star; Michael Grade, the former executive chairman of ITV; Patience Wheatcroft of the Wall Street Journal (we’re still waiting for a gong for the Westminster Blog); John Sharkey, the former ad man who led the Lib Dem election campaign; and Stanley Fink, the godfather of the hedge fund industry.

Full list below: Read more

Margaret Thatcher always had a soft spot for David Young, the businessman who brought some “can do” spirit to the old Department of Trade and Industry.

Baroness Thatcher said of Lord Young: “Other people brought me problems. David brought me solutions.” Read more

David Cameron aimed a broadside at the Ministry of Defence today (and by proxy at Liam Fox).

“That department does seem to have had a bit of problem for leaks which is worrying when that department is responsible for security.”

On one level this is fair enough. Leaks are extremely unsettling for ministers and senior officials.

But at the MoD, the problem hasn’t been leaks. It has been a willingness to cover up uncomfortable truths. How else did it end up with a black hole of £36bn? Some more transparency — whether authorised or not — would only have been beneficial.

The coalition certainly believes this in principle. But when transparency makes life difficult for them rather than Labour, they struggle.

Take James Kirkup’s excellent scoop today. Fox’s reaction was to say that it was written by a “junior official” and that it had not “been authorised, requested or seen by an MoD minister”.

Which begs the question, why not? Why didn’t ministers see this well argued, plainly written and insightful critique of the most important defence review since the Cold War? Read more

An intriguing ad was placed today on the w4mp website. Read more

Chris Grayling on Wednesday launched a full-frontal assault on Labour’s flagship welfare-to-work programme. Whether you agree with him or not, his chutzpah has to be admired.

Remember these Flexible New Deal contracts — that he condemned as “costing massive amounts of money and delivering very little” — are based on the very same principles as the coalition’s replacement “Work Programme”. And those Labour “payment by results” contracts were also designed with the help of one Lord Freud, who now serves as a welfare minister.

Grayling’s case against them is worth looking at in detail, at least to examine whether the coalition’s break with the past is as clean as he claims.

But, before doing that, it is important to give some background and highlight a potentially worrying trend.

Although it is too early to make a final judgement, at this point the welfare-to-work providers are falling well short of expectations. On average, they’re missing the government’s target by around 50 per cent.

The big concern for the coalition should be that Grayling’s critique doesn’t really relate to these potential problems. If he’s right about providers seriously underperforming, the Work Programme — the great hope for moving people off unemployment benefits — is likely to fare just as badly. Read more

Here is a fine example of the dangers of politicians writing seemingly innocuous op-eds for newspapers.

Ahead of a trip to Dublin in 2006, George Osborne used an article in The Times to pay homage to the Irish boom. The opening paragraph about Ireland’s “shining example” to economic policymakers is a classic:

A generation ago, the very idea that a British politician would go to Ireland to see how to run an economy would have been laughable. The Irish Republic was seen as Britain’s poor and troubled country cousin, a rural backwater on the edge of Europe. Today things are different. Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking, and that is why I am in Dublin: to listen and to learn.

The conclusion is almost as cringeworthy:

The new global economy poses real long-term challenges to Britain, but also real opportunities for us to prosper and succeed.  In Ireland they understand this.

They have freed their markets, developed the skills of their workforce, encouraged enterprise and innovation and created a dynamic economy. They have much to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.

To be fair to Osborne, many of his arguments are still valid even after the crash.

A well educated workforce, top notch R&D investment, and competitive tax rates to encourage investment are all as important now as they were during the boom years.

But there is not a word of caution about potential imbalanaces in the economy. No mention of the racy property market, reckless lending, or his views on the dangers to Ireland from having joined the Euro. Read more

Here at the CBI’s climate change summit, most of the anger towards government has centred on the changes to the carbon reduction commitment (CRC), which has seen money originally earmarked for businesses with good environmental performances going to the Treasury instead. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin summed up the feeling in the room when he described it as the government “nicking your CRC dividend”.

So business leaders are relieved to hear Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, make some concessions today. Here’s what he said:

Today we have published a UK-wide consultation on delaying the start of Phase II of CRC. This means that participants won’t need to register for Phase II until 2013.

 Read more

It has been widely noted that David Cameron pinched a soundbite from Gordon Brown in his Guildhall speech on Monday night. Hard-headed internationalism, it seems, is good enough for two British prime ministers. Read more

The clash over next year’s EU budget has widely been viewed as a contest between the austere and the profligate. The end result, after a final round of negotiations collapsed in the wee hours of the night, is that the forces of austerity, led by UK prime minister David Cameron and his Dutch and Danish allies, prevailed over a spendthrift European parliament.

But there is another – often overlooked – element to the debate that animated the member states’ unexpectedly stubborn stance: a desire to punish a Parliament that has grown increasingly assertive – some say grasping – since the Lisbon treaty came into force in December. Read more

The Strategy Unit, the prime minister’s long term think tank, is facing the chop.

Renaming or restructuring your strategy team is an important rite of passage for most prime ministers, so this should come as little surprise to Whitehall veterans.

But it does give an insight into some of the teething problems the policy wonks have faced in Downing Street, not least given the extra pressures of working in a coalition.

The plans are not quite finalised. But it looks like the Strategy Unit — which is staffed by a few dozen civil servants — will broadly be split in two.

Some staff will join Steve Hilton and Polly Mackenzie in the Policy Unit, which is mainly staffed by special advisers in Downing Street. The remainder will be joining Nick Clegg’s small but growing cadre of wonks. The Office of Civil Society, meanwhile, is to be beefed up to become The Big Office of Civil Society*. Gareth Davies, the current head of the strategy unit, will be its new director general.

Shifting policy specialists from a Strategy Unit to a Policy Unit will only set pulses racing of the most devoted Whitehall-ogist. But there is a genuine point to be made. These two teams were set up to do very different things. Read more

There were two important “read my lips” moments in the election campaign. One was Clegg’s pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees. The other was Cameron’s “contract” with the electorate on pensioner perks. Each pledge cost the Treasury a comparable amount (about £7bn and £4bn respectively). Only one politician had to eat his words.

This may be one of the most important trade-offs of the coalition. Tim Montgomerie has done a brilliant job of collating all the Con-Lib compromises so far. But a lot of them are obscure policy disputes, matters for the Westminster village. Most will hardly register with the electorate. Read more

The IDS welfare white paper is impressive in parts. But it is difficult to work out some of the most basic knock-on effects. After having struggled in vain with the data provided, Ian Mulheirn of the Social Market Foundation looked asked a broader question:

What will happen to the incentives to work of a typical working family between 2010 and 2014, if they moved straight on to Universal Credit?

The answer is they’ll be paying about 6p in the pound extra in tax. It doesn’t quite match today’s rosy political rhetoric. Read more

Iain Duncan Smith just repeatedly “guaranteed” to the Commons that there would be no losers from the introduction of the Universal Credit. But that of course depends on how you define a loser.

This graph makes clear that there will be losers from this benefit reform, at least in terms of entitlements. It hits a relatively well off section of society. But they are losers nonetheless. Read more

David Cameron has announced some genuinely tough penalties for jobseekers who step out of line. But it is no revolution in benefit management. Here are five reasons to take the latest crackdown on the workshy with a big pinch of salt:

1. Sanctions are as old as benefits. The first powers to dock the benefits of the workshy were introduced in the 1913 bill that created Unemployment Benefit. Yes, before the First World War. This “radical” Cameron plan is as old as the welfare state. Read more

The scenes of students smashing up Millbank Tower are quite extraordinary. They did make me wonder who owns the building. After all, it will not be the Tory party picking up the bill for the damage.

The owners are in fact the Reuben brothers, two property tycoons who made their fortune in Russian aluminium during the chaotic 1990s. Read more

The Clegg team spend a lot of time worrying about excoriating coverage in The Guardiana paper thatbacked the Lib Dems during the election campaign. This fascinating chart surely proves that they have nothing to worry about.

It shows The Guardian’s election endorsement actually led to a fall in support for the Lib Dems among Guardian readers. Read more

Jim Pickard

A new poll has thrown up a curious result:

In a poll of over 2,000 British adults, just 29% wanted to keep the current voting system, with 20% in favour of the Alternative Vote system (the subject of a national referendum on May 5th 2011) and 45% wanting some form of proportional representation. Read more

Jim Pickard

One of the more intriguing lines to emerge from the Cameron trip to China is that the prime minister has apparently risked a row with his hosts by wearing a lapel poppy.

In Britain, of course, this is a symbol of those who have died fighting for their country. In China the flower has a less welcome connotation with European imperialism. Read more