Monthly Archives: February 2013

Jim Pickard

Attention is focusing ever more on the Liberal Democrats and their former election strategist Lord Rennard, (pictured*) who denies claims of sexual harrassment. Against this backdrop we have been offered an account from a female party worker who has asked to remain anonymous.

Like many women working inside Westminster the current LibDem scandal has prompted me to reflect on the culture within the bubble. I started working there in 1996. During this time I have been propositioned by members of all three parties, a couple of journalists, a senior No 10 advisor, party donors, one or two MPs and handful of peers. Some even have nicknames which should be a warning to stay clear. There were invitations in for coffee after shared taxis, bottom patting, innuendo and blatant

 Read more

Jim Pickard

The government faces a pincer movement from an array of opposition parties to its “bedroom tax” tomorrow with the potential to expose splits within the coalition over the controversial plan.

It’s a taste of how Gordon Brown’s “umbrella coalition” could have worked had the defeated prime minister been able to cobble together a desperate union of Labour with the Celtic fringes and the solo Green MP back in 2010. (No one, including those involved in those half-hearted talks, has since mourned their failure.)

The SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens will use an opposition day motion to call on the Read more

Jim Pickard

The bruising Commons encounters between George Osborne and Ed Balls are often a pleasure to watch – albeit from a safe distance. And none more so than today’s bout, with its characteristic “rapier v sledgehammer” quality.

It was Balls who called the encounter through an urgent question to inquire about the loss of Britain’s cherished AAA credit rating. But it was Osborne who got to speak first.

The chancellor observed that the markets had not shown much volatility today, with 10-year gilts steady at 2.1 per cent and the FTSE slightly up. (He ignored the fact that at one point sterling hit a two-year low in reaction to the news.)

Waspishly, he observed that the downgrade was “worrying” to anyone who thought that Read more

Kiran Stacey

George Osborne and Danny Alexander will front two important pieces of analysis next month into why being in the UK benefits Scotland both in terms of its currency and its financial services sector.

The first of these papers could prove particularly interesting. It will argue that the best kind of relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK would be full fiscal and currency union – ie remaining part of the UK.

But it will also give an intriguing answer on the terms on which Scotland could leave the UK and yet still retain sterling as its currency. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Joachim Gauck

Joachim Gauck

David Cameron’s European strategy hinges on the idea that he will be able to repatriate powers from Brussels to Westminster, before offering voters a choice between the new settlement and leaving the EU altogether in a referendum.

But the question that remains to be answered is exactly how much will other European countries be willing bend to Britain’s demands for such repatriation? Will the threat of Britain leaving be enough to persuade them to cooperate, or will they be so irritated by the way in which Cameron is going about his project that they happily wave goodbye to the UK?

In a speech this morning in Germany, the German president made it clear that he does not want to see the UK simply pack its bags and leave. Speaking from his Schloss Bellevue, his official residence, Joachim Gauck said: Read more

Kiran Stacey

Boris Johnson and Maria Hutchings doorknocking in Eastleigh

Boris Johnson and Maria Hutchings campaigning in Eastleigh

We are now just a week from the Eastleigh byelection and the likely result is starting to take shape.

The Lib Dems have emerged as the decisive favourites. They have run an impeccable campaign, from choosing a man who was the antithesis of Chris Huhne, to limiting the campaign to three weeks, preventing their rivals from getting their machinery properly off the ground.

For a full explanation of why the Lib Dem ground operation has been better than the Tory one, James Forsyth’s piece for the Spectator gives an excellent summary. Read more

Jim Pickard

It was an awkward moment for George Osborne this morning when the results of the 4G broadband auction appeared. The sale has raised just £2.3bn – against an estimate of £3.5bn which had been factored into the government’s accounts for this year.

That missing £1bn may be a drop in the ocean compared to the £212bn of extra borrowing which the coalition is having to make compared to its ambitious 2010 forecasts.

Yet the figure is of fierce political significance. That is because it could make the difference to whether the deficit is rising or falling this year.

Two months ago Ed Balls accused the Treasury of manipulating the public borrowing figures by taking account of 4G spectrum proceeds before the auction had taken place.

That, you may recall, was the reason for his stumbling performance when he responded in the autumn statement in December. Balls simply couldn’t believe that the chancellor had been able to say that the deficit was still going down and not up. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Andrew MitchellAs Andrew Mitchell begins to emerge from the shadows of the “plebgate” row, talk has turned to whether he could be brought back into the cabinet, or perhaps be given another plum government job.

The latest talk is that the former chief whip is one of two candidates (alongside Peter Lilley) under consideration to become the UK’s next EU commissioner when Cathy Ashton steps down next year.

Mitchell has not said anything in public about whether he would want to take the job. But his comment piece in this morning’s FT gives us some idea about what kind of agenda he would pursue if he was selected. Read more

Kiran Stacey

George Osborne and Danny Alexander

George Osborne and Danny Alexander

This June, George Osborne will unveil his spending review for the financial year 2015/16. The chancellor is expecting to have to make around £10bn of cuts to Whitehall departments, which, as we revealed in the FT a few weeks ago, would mean some departments taking a particularly heavy whack.

Our figures show that cutting at the same pace as the government has done so far, which is what Osborne has promised, would mean another £1bn taken out of both the business department and the money that goes to local government. The defence budget, possibly the most sensitive of budgets, at least within the Conservative party, would fall by nearly £770m. Read more

Kiran Stacey

David Cameron with Maria HutchingsIt was always going to be fascinating to watch how the two coalition parties would campaign when pitted against each other in the closely-fought Eastleigh byelection.

Commentators expected both sides to start criticising policies they have backed within the coalition, and to a certain extent that has happened.

But a press note just delivered by the Lib Dems has turned that on its head, becoming what must surely be the first election material to praise a minister of a different party for implementing government policy. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Ed Miliband’s announcement that Labour backs a mansion tax on properties over £2m, with the money used to fund a new 10p rate of income tax, has left the two coalition parties scrambling to trump the opposition with their own progressive tax plans.

For the Lib Dems, this meant leaking a tax document* being prepared in advance of the party’s spring conference. The paper proposed extending the mansion tax from people’s first properties to apply also to additional properties and any other land they may own. It also suggested the more radical idea of taxing assets such as paintings, jewellery and even record and book collections – although this was quickly dismissed by Vince Cable.

The Tories offered their own response on Sunday evening, when Tory chairman Grant Shapps appeared on BBC 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics. Shapps told the programme the Tories were considering pushing the income tax allowance beyond the £10,000 level currently planned – something that could go into the party’s 2015 manifesto.  Read more

Jim Pickard

The shadow cabinet may have been kept in the dark but Ed Miliband did have a policy to announce on Thursday; and it was a big one which made the front of today’s FT.

With one stroke he has seized the political initiative, at least temporarily. The politics and fiscal implications are both worth examining in detail.

Clearly the promise of a new mansion tax is an attempt to steal the Lib Dems’ big idea and neutralise any lingering attraction between the third party and left-leaning voters. Labour is still vague about how the tax would work, however: it could still consist of a new upper rate of council tax on the most pricey homes. (Ed Miliband’s is said to be worth about £1.9m, incidentally).

Meanwhile by promising to reinstate the 10p tax band – albeit only in a limited way – Labour hopes to close down any attempt by the Tories to make a similar move. The party also wants to end any lingering anger at the original scrapping of the rate by Gordon Brown.

It was in the spring of 2008 that the changes kicked in as a way to make up for Read more

Jim Pickard

Cynics have long worried that the “Mary Portas Review” of the high street, commissioned by the government, was largely a PR exercise. I pointed out last autumn that there were concerns that the review’s recommendations were just a drop in the ocean compared to the wider global trends forcing the closure of countless retail chains.

And now it has emerged that eight months after £1.1million was awarded to the first wave of Portas Pilots – to “kick start a renaissance” in town centres -only 12 per cent of the money has been spent.

The figure emerged from an Foi request by Paul Turner Mitchell, a retail commentator and fashion boutique owner. This suggests that only £136,000 has been spent so far with some pilots having spent none of the funding allocated.

Some of this has gone towards DCLG meetings, project co-ordinator salaries, charges for Read more

Jim Pickard

By Beth Rigby

Pro-European Conservatives have set up a group to press the case for Britain’s place in Europe in an attempt to redress the party’s rabid euroscepticism.

The Mainstream Conservatives, led by Laura Sandys, will campaign for a “Yes” vote to membership of the European Union in a future referendum and will also offer a pro-European perspective on issues spanning trade and investment, the environment and justice.

A dozen MPs, including former cabinet ministers Stephen Dorrell and Caroline Spelman, have put themselves forward as spokespeople.

The new group will act as a counterpoint to the Fresh Start Group, led by Andrea Read more

Jim Pickard

Ed Miliband channelled Ronald Reagan as he used PMQs to push the prime minister on living standards – the issue likely to be the main battleground of the next election.

He put horsemeat to one side to ask David Cameron if living standards would be higher or lower at the end of the Parliament.

The prime minister is vulnerable on the issue given the stagnating economy and cuts to benefits and public spending. He retorted that people would be better off than they would have been under Labour.

But his reply that 24m people would see a tax cut was not exactly convincing: the rise in the income tax threshold towards £10,000 does not negate the much bigger cuts to living standards elsewhere – for example through changes to benefits or tax credits. Read more

Jim Pickard

Mary Creagh has rightly been getting plaudits for putting the boot into the government over its handling of the horsemeat scandal. The fiesty shadow environment secretary has proved herself one of the most effective operators on the opposition front bench.

But is she right to suggest that Owen Paterson, environment secretary, is the only politician to have responded in a somewhat lacklustre way to the unfolding scandal? Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg in Eastleigh

Nick Clegg in Eastleigh

Nick Clegg yesterday won the race to become the first party leader to get to Eastleigh, where the Lib Dems are about to test their theory that they can hold onto their seats against Tory challenges in 2015.

Bravely, Clegg chose to tour a college where car mechanics were being trained, which given the circumstances in which Chris Huhne, the previous MP, had to resign his seat, helped the picture caption writers no end.

The Lib Dem leader gave off an air of unruffled determination, telling reporters he was “very confident” that his party would hold on to the seat. Read more

Jim Pickard

How badly do ministers want a new era of nuclear power in the UK? At the moment it is not clear – but they will soon have to show their hand.

Negotiations have been going on for months with French power giant EDF Energy to agree a fixed “strike price” for its electricity. This complex “CFD” (contract for difference) is being set in the current energy bill and will be open to all generators of low-carbon energy.

But EDF is now in talks with the Treasury to receive further support, as we revealed on the front of today’s FT. The talks are still at a very early stage but are very much live.

The company is asking the government to underwrite some of the project’s financing, which could make it more attractive to third-party investors such as pension funds or Chinese state-owned nuclear companies. (EDF has been in talks with two such groups since Read more

Stephen Hester, chief executive of RBS, gives evidence to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards less than a week after the bank was fined £390m by US and UK regulators for rigging the Libor rate. By Lina Saigol and Ben Fenton
 

Kiran Stacey

Chris HuhneJane Croft, our law courts correspondent, brings us an interesting side note from yesterday’s (fairly harrowing) evidence session with Vicky Pryce at Southwark crown court.

According to Pryce, when David Laws resigned as Treasury chief secretary just 17 days into the job, Nick Clegg originally approached Huhne to offer him the job.

Huhne, who used to work for ratings agency Fitch, would have been a perfect fit for the role, which he used to cover in opposition. He was also one of the driving forces behind the Lib Dems’ pre-election economic programme, which was finely poised between those of the Tories and Labour. Read more