It seems as if the tension may be getting to some Liberal Democrats. I just called Lady Sharp, who is – it transpires – the party’s higher education spokeswoman in the House of Lords. Sharp is quoted in this morning’s Guardian prevaricating over tonight’s tuition fees vote. (“She pointed out that, even on official calculations, £2.7bn of the £10bn due to be lent annually to students will not be repaid.”)
With only a few hours to go before the peers’ voting, the peer still claims to be undecided: “I’m going to make up my mind during the debate,” she told me before hanging up the phone.
The 60-year old cabinet veteran Alan Johnson has insisted that he is sticking around for the long-term, despite signals that he is not exactly bonding with Ed Miliband. Their disagreement over the graduate tax and the 50p income tax band are the most visible signs of tension. They are also spending less time together than you might expect. As the FT reported a few weeks ago:
Mr Johnson and Mr Miliband have been allocated the same offices in Westminster’s Norman Shaw buildings once occupied by Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne before the election. But the shadow chancellor spends most of his time in his old office in a separate building.
Jim has reported on the cool response from ministers to Sir Gus O’Donnell’s unsolicited paper on contingency measures if the economy takes a turn for the worse.
But O’Donnell is not the only Whitehall knight taking a hit today from MPs.
Sir Bill Jeffrey, who was until recently Britain’s most senior defence official, has also been ticked off over his handling of the aircraft carrier decision.
The Public Accounts Committee takes the highly unusual step of criticising him by name for failing to request a “letter of instruction” from his minister before signing the “unaffordable” aircraft carrier contract.
They conclude he did not “discharge his responsibility” as accounting officer. In plain language, it means he failed in his duty to protect value for money.
I provided a link earlier today to Philip Stephens’ scoop on the Sir Gus O’Donnell memo asking for potential stimulus measures to have on standby if the economy deteriorates.
At this morning’s Downing Street press conference there was a hint that the memo had not gone down very well with senior cabinet ministers:
I’m told there is a strong chance of the coalition losing a vote this afternoon in the House of Lords. Not on tuition fees, which will be debated in the evening.
Instead a cross-bench peer, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, has proposed an amendment to stop the coalition scrapping the post of chief coroner in its Public Bodies Bill (otherwise known as the bonfire of the quangos). Labour have a three-line whip on its peers to back Finlay, who also has the sympathy of many other cross-benchers.
Philip Stephens, the FT’s chief political commentator, reveals in his column this morning that a confidential paper is circulating in Downing Street suggesting that the government should consider in advance “if not a fully worked up Plan B then at least a series of possible stimulus measures that could be implemented were the economy to stall“. The paper is written by the cabinet secretary.
Here is a link to the column, which lays out some of Sir Gus’s suggestions to ministers.