Monthly Archives: February 2013

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 

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 

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. 

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? 

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. 

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 

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. 

Kiran Stacey

George Osborne and Danny Alexander

George Osborne, left, and Danny Alexander

While Tories tear themselves apart over gay marriage, another row is creeping up on the government which could be much more long-term and damaging.

Without creating too much of a stir (yet), George Osborne and Danny Alexander are busy in the Treasury, planning their next round of spending cuts. They have told ministers that they intend to keep cutting at the same rate and in the same proportions as has been done so far, which means returning for further savings to departments that have already been hit heavily.

Theresa May, Chris Grayling, Philip Hammond and Vince Cable all realised this would place them at the front of the axeman’s queue, and urged Osborne to rethink his strategy at a stormy cabinet meeting a few weeks’ ago. 

Kiran Stacey

Chris HuhneAfter pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice, Chris Huhne made this statement outside the court:

Having taken responsibility for something that happened 10 years ago, the only proper course of action is for me to resign my Eastleigh seat in parliament.

Contrast that with the letters he sent to David Cameron and Nick Clegg at the time. To Clegg, his party leader and rival, he wrote:

I am writing to resign, with great regret, as Energy and Climate Change Secretary. I will defend myself robustly in the courts against the charges that the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to press. I have concluded that it would be distracting both to my trial defence and to my official duties if I were to continue in office as a minister….

This is what Clegg sent in return: