Monthly Archives: January 2011

Jim Pickard

Over the quiet New Year period I interviewed Grant Shapps, housing minister, who made an explicit warning about proposed changes to the mortgage market. The Financial Services Authority is carrying out a review of the industry which could result in much tighter lending criteria for home-buyers.

Now Richard Lambert, the outgoing director-general of the CBI, has made a similar warning in his parting speech today. He says: Read more

Jim Pickard

Former IFS head Robert Chote, in his new role as head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, is not supposed to cast judgment on government policy. But he comes pretty close in an FT interview today.

Chote appears to question whether the “fair fuel stabiliser”, which David Cameron has promised to examine, would actually work. (The policy was in the Tory manifesto but not in the coalition agreement). Cameron has never explicitly said the government would introduce the policy – the Treasury is examining it – but said recently that he wanted some way to share the pain of rising petrol prices. The stabiliser could smooth out price fluctuations by imposing a lower duty on oil/petrol when the price rises and a higher duty when the price falls. Read more

Jim Pickard

When Ed Miliband and Ed Balls met late on Wednesday evening at the former’s offices over cups of coffee they sought to “thrash out” economic differences and agree a joint strategy for the coming years. Both men are aware that the appointment could either be seen as a sign of Miliband’s weakness – did he feel there was no one else? - or his strength, in that he now feels able (rightly or wrongly) to contain the strong Balls ego.

Their task is to convince the world that they have not entered a shotgun wedding – given that some senior colleagues suggest they do not even like one another. (One shadow cabinet member suggests their relationship has the potential to be even worse than Miliband-Miliband, given that Balls used to treat his new boss as the ‘office boy’ back in the Treasury days). Read more

Welcome back. The FT’s Westminster team is reporting live on former prime minister Tony Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq warThis post will automatically refresh every three minutes,  although it may take longer on mobile devices.

Read our earlier post here.

1411 Details are emerging from the room. The atmosphere was obviously more fraught than it appeared on telly. The mood changed as soon as Blair started talking tough on Iran. People began to fidget more and sigh. Then when Blair expressed regrets about the loss of life in Iraq, a woman shouted: “Well stop trying to kill them.” Two women stood up and walked out; another audience member turned her back on Blair and faced the wall. As Blair began to leave the room, one audience member shouted “It is too late”, another said “he’ll never look us in the eye”. Then Rose Gentle, who lost her son in Iraq,delivered the final blow. “Your lies killed my son,” she said. “I hope you can live with it.”

1402 That’s it folks. We’re winding up. Chilcot has thanked the audience. A calmer and slightly more contrite performance from Tony Blair, but no less assured than his first appearance before the inquiry. The main difference has been the Chilcot panel’s approach — much more detailed questions, much more forensic and at times incredibly boring. They are clearly close to the end of writing the report and are relatively settled on the conclusions, which will not make pleasant reading for Blair. Read more

Jim Pickard

The Prime Minister said today:

“I am very sorry that Andy Coulson has decided to resign as my Director of Communications, although I understand that the continuing pressures on him and his family mean that he feels compelled to do so. Andy has told me that the focus on him was impeding his ability to do his job and was starting to prove a distraction for the Government. Read more

Jim Pickard

Good morning. The Westminster team is reporting live on former prime minister Tony Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war.

12.30: We are now taking another coffee break. Alex will be your host when delivery returns in about 10 minutes’ time. You’ll need to go back to and open a new window – ie Iraq inquiry part two.

In the meantime here are some quotes from this morning’s inquiry which will no doubt make the news later.

* Blair told his chief of staff a year before the war with Iraq that the UK “should be gung-ho on Saddam”.

* “Up to September 11, we had been managing this issue. After September 11, we decided we had to confront and change.”

* “There are people who say that extremism can be managed. I personally don’t think that’s true.”

* On his Iraq policy in 2002: “I wasn’t keeping my options open. I was setting out a policy that was very very clear.”

* He said the cabinet was aware of his policy: “Go down UN route, get an ultimatum. If he fails to take the ultimatum, we’re going to be with America on military action.”

* “We were probably the most successful centre left government in the world.”

* “I was raising issues to do with Somalia…the Middle East peace process…Lebanon. My view was that this was all part of one issue, in the end. You couldn’t deal with it sequentially.”

* The nature of Saddam’s regime in Iraq was not a justification for going to war – “but it is why we should be proud to have got rid of him”.

* “I didn’t see September 11 as an attack on America, I saw it as an attack on us – the West. I told George Bush – ‘Whatever the political heat, if I think this is the right thing to do, I’m going to be with you.’”

* “When the military pressure was off, he was going to be back, and with far more money. If we had left Saddam there, I think it’s arguable he might have been developing in competition with Iran.”

12.25: Blair has argued that he wanted to get a majority of the UN security council, even if he could not get unanimous support. Sir Lawrence Freedman asked if Blair stopped the UN weapons inspection process just at the crucial point when it was starting to reap dividends. Blair sidesteps the question, saying Saddam was “back to his old games”. Freedman ponders whether a few more weeks may have made a difference?

Blair says Saddam may have made a few more concessions but his overall stance would not have changed – it was still a mistake to leave the dictator in place, he insists. Read more

Jim Pickard

Sorry for the delay – I’ve been writing for tonight’s newspaper. Here is a distillation of the reasons given by Labour’s spokesman for the departure of Alan Johnson as shadow chancellor.

We have been trying to persuade him to stay, we have been saying, ‘can you work this out, can we work it out, for the last few days.” Read more

Jim Pickard

We asked in December whether Alan Johnson would stay long in the shadow chancellor role. The answer is not long: he’s resigning in 15 minutes time. This is apparently because of family reasons rather than the fact that he has been caught short on economic policy several times in recent weeks. Stay posted.

UPDATE: Ed Balls will be shadow chancellor, the job he has coveted. His wife Yvette Cooper replaces him as shadow home affairs secretary. Douglas Alexander will quit his DWP post to become shadow foreign secretary, which was Cooper’s role. Here is the Johnson statement: Read more

A senior Tory predicted to me in opposition that austerity would usher in a new era of decentralisation in government.

New Labour, he said, couldn’t resist micromanaging public services; they had to show results from a spending spree.

By contrast ministers tasked with slashing budgets would be desperate to pass down responsibility for the worst decisions. This is the kind of power politicians are keen to give away.

He was right. The coalition have embraced the agenda of localism with some gusto. Now heartwrenching case of Riven Vincent has come along to test David Cameron’s resolve. Read more

Jim Pickard

In theory the shake-up of the NHS will cost over £1bn upfront but save more than £1bn annually thereafter, according go the coalition. But there are many inside and outside the health service who fear for the consequences of such a major management revolution, as I wrote a few days ago.

Sir Nick Macpherson, permanent secretary at the Treasury, appeared to issue a coded warning over the reforms when he addressed the public accounts committee on Wednesday afternoon. Read more

Jim Pickard

Bonuses are a highly controversial issue right now but Sir Gus O’Donnell, head of the UK civil service, has no qualms in calling for top civil servants to be paid more – and to get higher one-off payments.

The mandarin told the public accounts committee today that departments were losing some of their best staff because of the competition from the private sector. Read more

Jim Pickard

You’ve already read the quote from the numerical filibustering Labour peer.

Today here is another quote, this time from Lady Ford, citing a famous historical cannibal, Sawney Bean (pictured). Her words were at 7.30am yesterday after an all-night session in the chamber. And Labour is still claiming that its peers aren’t deliberately time-wasting? Read more

Jim Pickard

After last night’s 22-hour Lords sitting there was some relief for the exhausted peers today. They began their new stint after lunch and it ended at about 4.30pm.

I’m told the atmosphere was more co-operative than yesterday’s spiky and brittle exchanges. The peers smoothly worked through four batches of amendments during the afternoon  – but 130 amendments still have to be ploughed through by February 16. (That is because 10 weeks are needed before the May 5 referendum on the new voting system). Read more

Jim Pickard

It was political blogger Guido Fawkes who started the rumour earlier today that Lord Mandelson is set to do some advisory work for Lazard, the venerable investment bank.

It is a story that Lazard is making no effort to deny. Richard Creswell, the bank’s head of press, tells me: “We will decline to comment…I’ve got nothing else to say“. Read more

Jim Pickard

Ed Miliband is said to have entered the New Year in a conciliatory mood, hoping to make new allies inside his party and beyond. Key to this strategy was an attempt – which he explained at the weekend – to bury the hatchet with the Liberal Democrats.

As our political editor George Parker wrote on Sunday night, Miliband is trying to shed his image as an old-style tribal Labour leader by reaching out to Lib Dems such as Lord Owen*.

Ed Miliband portrayed himself on Sunday as the leader of a “progressive” alliance against coalition cuts, claiming that Simon Hughes, deputy Liberal Democrat leader, had joined his fight against the abolition of grants for poor students.

The concept is being taken seriously in some quarters; Mary Riddell in today’s Telegraph is talking about a ‘rapprochement’ between Lib and Lab. (Others may suspect that Miliband is more keen on pinching former Lib Dem voters than forging bonds with Lib Dem politicians).

But in senior Lib Dem circles today there is nothing but fury about last night’s attempts by Labour to sabotage the AV/boundaries bill in the House of Lords. “Of all the things to pick a fight on, Miliband must know that this turf is Lib Dem, constitutional reform,  it makes a total nonsense of his words about reconciliation between the two parties,” says one Lib Dem source. Read more

Jim Pickard

Labour is trying to claim that its attempts to sabotage the AV/boundaries bill is not filibustering but rather an attempt to ensure that the legislation is properly examined. The debate went right through the night, as I predicted in this article last night, with the possibility of further all-nighters over the next fortnight.

If Labour is not trying to sabotage the bill, what should we make of this rhetoric from Lord Harris shortly before 1.45am? Read more

Jim Pickard

The energy secretary was at last Friday’s signing of the BP deal with Rosneft, although he says he had no involvement in setting up the controversial deal. There was a political backlash last night – reported here on - to Mr Huhne’s attendance.

Why? Because Rosneft emerged from the remains of the Yukos empire of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon, who has been controversially imprisoned since 2003. William Hague, foreign secretary, was recently critical of a Russian judge’s decision to extend Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment by six further years. Read more

Jim Pickard

It’s a fair bet that the public at large may not yet have grasped the enormous changes planned for the NHS  which will be unveiled in full later this week. Not only is commissioning being switched from primary care trusts to GP consortiums – “the biggest management shake-up in the world” as it has been described” – but the reforms go even deeper, as Nick Timmins explains in a magisterial column this morning. Read more

Jim Pickard

Taxpayers could be hit with an extra bill of £17m if the referendum on the alternative vote is delayed from its planned date of May 6 because of Labour delaying tactics criticised by government insiders as “filibustering”.

At present the poll is scheduled to co-incide with local and regional elections, which would reduce the cost of the plebiscite from £82m to £65m. But ministers are growing increasingly anxious because the relevant bill – covering both AV and reform of constituency boundaries – is currently marooned at the committee stage in the House of Lords.

Despite having already had eight days of scrutiny Labour figures believe that at least another four full days are needed.

For things to proceed smoothly the bill has to become law by the critical point of February 16 – in 12 parliamentary working day’s time. This date is crucial because under the law the Electoral Commission needs a full 10 weeks to prepare the literature for the referendum on AV. Read more

Jim Pickard

It’s taken me 24 hours to put pen to paper but here is the most amusing exchange from yesterday’s PASC hearing with Oliver Letwin, one of the leading intellectual forces in the government. The subject was departmental business plans – which may explain the lack of other journalists there.

Charlie Elphicke, Tory MP for DoverRead more