Monthly Archives: September 2011

Nicholas Timmins

It is party conference time. And the old convention that each party let is opponents have their week in the sun is dead.

Gordon Brown is partly responsible for that. His decision to go to Iraq to be televised supporting our boys in the middle of the Conservative party conference in 2007 – just head of the general election he was minded to call but bottled – left the Tories spitting teeth.

Today was part of their revenge. Andrew Lansley declares that some 20-odd NHS hospitals may not be financially and clinically viable because of the scale of their PFI debts – their payments are too high a chunk of their turnover – and that is all Labour’s fault. As indeed is the separate build up of debt which some carry and which, as things stand, will prevent them becoming free standing NHS foundation trustsRead more

Kiran Stacey

Jim wrote earlier this month about the trouble the fixed-term parliaments bill has run into in the Lords.

Now it has finally passed, some Lib Dems think it could mark the end of coalition government altogether, at least under the current first-past-the-post voting system.

Lib Dem MPs broadly fall into two categories in their attitude towards the coalition: those who relish it as a chance to get their ideas enacted in government and those who think it was a regrettable necessity given the electoral maths and economic crisis. Read more

Jim Pickard

If you were suspicious of Danny Alexander’s conference promise of 2,250 extra tax inspectors “to launch raids on the wealthy” (Daily Mail) you were right to be.

My colleague Sue Cameron has got to the bottom of the announcement. She reports in FT’s Notebook column that existing HMRC staff will move from their present jobs into a new “affluent” unit. (The adverts are all internal). Read more

Jim Pickard

Having not seen Ed Miliband’s conference speech (for next week) I can only guess what’s in it; but the broad assumption in Labour circles is that their leader will try to cement his strategy of backing ordinary people against “Big Interests”.

The tactic worked impressively well during the hacking scandal, when Miliband took on News International (admittedly, when the cracks in the Murdoch empire were already visible). We have since seen similar talk against big energy companies and the most irresponsible banks. Many of Ed’s advisers think the dots can be joined up across other sectors to create a binding philosophy.

But Nick Clegg, doing his conference speech this afternoon, is already ploughing some very similar furrows.

Take this line: “That’s why we speak up, first and loudest, when the establishment lets the people down.”There could hardly be a more clear statement of intent to plonk the Lib Dems in Miliband’s territory.

Clegg talks about “a new economy run for ordinary people rather than big finance”. He will promise to “act for the whole nation”.

“In our long, proud liberal history, we have never served; the media moguls, the union barons or the bankers. We do not serve, and we will never serve, vested interests. We are in nobody’s pocket”.

Clegg goes on to say that various establishment institutions have been exposed one by one: “The City of London, shattered by the greed of bankers. The media, corrputed by phone hacking. Parliament, shamed by expenses.”

Miliband’s speechwriting team must be looking on askance, wondering how they can Read more

Jim Pickard

When  Julian Astle – former director of CentreForum – arrives in Downing Street in a few months time there will be one very familiar face amid the welcoming party.

Astle, who is covering for Polly Mackenzie as deputy director of strategy, used to work for Lord Ashdown in the Balkans – when the former Lib Dem leader was High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Read more

Helen Warrell

Tom McNally, the Lib Dem peer and justice minister, may face a less than positive reception when he returns to the Ministry of Justice after the party conference in Birmingham.

As the Guardian  reported today, Lord McNally has already weighed in against his Tory colleagues at repeated fringe events, suggesting that the decision to add the word “punishment” to the government’s legal aid and sentencing bill was the work of “little elves that work in No 10″ helping the prime minister to get the right-wing media on side.

These comments were followed by a remarkably frank discussion of the MoJ’s move to transform the justice system and reduce reoffending through payment by results, at a fringe meeting looking at who should profit from the penal system.

Asking rhetorically whether the introduction of private providers into the prison service was “a sin against the holy ghost [of public provision] or a sensible way of the government financing much-needed services and competition”, Lord McNally acknowledged that the PBR drive had ultimately pragmatic motives. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Tim FarronI wrote on Monday that Lib Dem president Tim Farron’s barnstorming speech at party conference would have looked like a leadership bid if he hadn’t gone to such lengths to praise Nick Clegg.

Well his parliamentary colleagues see it slightly differently. I have spoken to many of them in the last few days, including government ministers, and the overwhelming sense is that this was very much Farron’s leadership pitch, albeit for 2015, after the next election.

Farron himself has further fuelled such gossip, telling BBC 5 Live this morning:

I love doing my job and my job is to be the MP for Westland. That is my number one job. I have a mandate from the Liberal Democrats as well to be their president, I have absolutely no ambition other than that.

Of course there is no ruling it out in the future.

 Read more

Jim Pickard

In a highly symbolic – and hugely political move – Ed Miliband is poised to weaken the union vote in future leadership contests for the Labour party. (Or strengthen other people’s, to put it another way.)

I can reveal* that Miliband wants to set up a “registered supporters scheme” allowing thousands of people to vote in future leadership elections. Their votes will be cast within the “affiliated organisations” section, which comprises a third of the total vote. (The other sections are MPs and party members).

This will be rubber-stamped at this morning’s meeting of the NEC (national executive committee). It then has to go through another NEC session on Saturday before passing through conference.

The obvious symbolism is that this is a dilution of the brothers’ power. As no one will ever forget, Ed won the leadership after the main unions clubbed together in his favour in a transparent attempt to thwart his elder brother.

But here is the catch. Last September some 247,339 trade union members voted in the election, most having been sent literature in the post. Another 127,331 members voted in their quorum.

How many people are there, realistically, who are interested enough in Labour politics to register as a “supporter” just to take part in the ballot – but not keen enough to actually join the party? Miliband’s team suggest that the figure will be “tens of Read more

Jim Pickard

A little-known facet of the planning system is that scores of big decisions every year are taken not by locals but from desks in Victoria, London. The adjudications are nominally by Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities, although in reality they are quasi-judicial decisions worked through by officials.

Today I’ve number-crunched the data and worked out that 81 schemes have been adjudicated by Pickles since the last general election. That rate – about 5.3 a month – is roughly the same as his predecessor over a similar period. Read more

Helen Warrell

Number 10 may have been reluctant to comment this morning on revelations by the FT’s Chris Giles about a £12bn ‘black hole’ in the public finances but Lib Dems, cornered at their conference in Birmingham, were more open.

Senior Lib Dem MPs quizzed on Monday suggested they were not entirely surprised by the 25 per cent increase in the structural deficit, but not surprisingly, are still not in any mood to back further cuts to bring it under control. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick CleggThree days in to Liberal Democrat party conference, and the strain of endless speeches, fringe meetings and late night drinking is starting to show. Especially, it seems, for Nick Clegg, who gave a somewhat grumpy performance during a 45-minute long Q&A session this afternoon.

He began, quite early on, by mocking a lack of follow up questions to one of his answers, saying:

What docility! This is like a North Korean conference meeting.

 Read more

Elizabeth Rigby

Nestled amongst the yellow revellers at CentreForum’s Lib Dem bash late last night was none other than Greg Clark, the Tory localism and cities minister.

Mr Clark, enjoying a glass of red wine and chatting to adoring Lib Dems, had come up to conference to fly the flag of coalition – and take part in a CentreForum debate with Ed Davey, Lib Dem employment minister on ‘Next steps for localism’.

It was not entirely alien territory for the cities minister: Greg Clark used to be a member of the SDP – he went to the last SDP party conference 23 years ago. Read more