Jim Pickard

Greg Barker, the Tory energy minister – who posed with David Cameron in the Arctic eight years ago – is stepping down from the government in a vivid symbol of the Conservative party’s changing priorities.

Mr Barker, who as climate change minister was the number two in the energy department, is also set to quit politics altogether by stepping down as an MP next May. Read more

Jim Pickard

As phone hacking returns to the House of Commons three years after it rocked the political establishment, it seems a good time to recap the best moments – and worst – of Ed Miliband as Labour leader:

MILIBAND HIGH POINTS

Winning the leadership, September 2010

Miliband confounds the sceptics by riding a wave of support from trade union members to beat his brother, David, by the tightest of margins.

In front of a packed hall in Manchester, Ed Miliband struggles with his emotions as he pronounces his love for his elder brother, and says: “Today the work of the new generation begins.”

One Nation Speech, October 2012

Ed Miliband surprises on the upside as he delivers, without notes, a confident speech promising to build a “One Nation Britain” in the spirit of Disraeli.

In a speech that draws heavily on his own background, the Labour leader promises to block or reverse coalition policies on education and the health service, but warns he will have to keep many of the Read more

Jim Pickard

Tax relief on pensions looks set to become a key battleground at next year’s general election with Labour and the Lib Dems both mulling a raid on well-off savers.

Steve Webb, the pensions minister, told us in an interview that he was optimistic that a cut in tax relief for higher-rate pensions would be in the Lib Dem manifesto.

Mr Webb said that the idea was gaining traction within the party leadership in the run-up to the manifesto being finalised later in the year.

Introducing a new system of flat-rate tax relief would penalise the well-off but could benefit many savers on lower incomes, giving them a greater incentive to save. “A significant majority of pension savers would get more tax relief, which seems like a good thing to me,” he said.

As such the policy would fit the Lib Dem narrative of helping low-income workers, having fought for several increases in the income tax threshold throughout the current Parliament.

Nick Clegg, the party leader, is understood to be sympathetic to Mr Webb’s idea, subject to further modelling work on the implications. “I’ve found the idea being increasingly well-received, both within and beyond the party,” said Mr Webb.

Labour has already promised to cut pension tax relief for those earning £150,000 from 45 per cent to 20 per cent.

Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, believes the move could raise £1.3bn a year, which Read more

Jim Pickard

Tonight is the annual speech by George Osborne to a City audience at Mansion House. We revealed this morning that the chancellor will set out plans to speed up development of disused industrial sites, in his latest attempt to stop housing shortages from holding back economic growth.

He will explain a package of planning reforms and state investment, worth hundreds of millions of pounds, to speed up housebuilding.

Osborne will roll out nationally a plan – proposed by Boris Johnson in London – for investing public money in cleaning up former industrial areas, in exchange for deals with developers and local authorities to guarantee speedy housebuilding. He will also set out planning reforms that could give an effective “presumption in favour of development” on brownfield sites.

But I’m told that the biggest surprise tonight may not be on the “supply” side but rather on the “demand side”.

Osborne, I’m told, still believes that there is no bubble in the London housing market, and that recent price rises are mainly a function of cash buyers and under-supply. Yet the coalition have been under pressure since Mark Carney warned in May that the housing Read more

Jim Pickard

Ed Miliband has been widely criticised for what critics claim is a plan to seize power with just 35 per cent of the vote.

The theory is that Miliband believes he can cobble together a “coalition” of core party voters alongside disaffected Lib Dems – giving him just votes to get into Downing Street. The maths is that Labour picked up about 29 per cent in 2010: add 6 per cent from Lib Dem defections and Miliband is home and dry.

Some Labour officials and MPs deny that this is the plan: others accept that it is the most realistic chance of power for the opposition party. (There is no shortage of left-ish policies to prove the theory.)

There is a dismissive tone to the idea of a “core strategy”. Commentators believe that it shows Miliband “turning his back on Middle England” and pursuing a policy platform advocated by the unions. Many Blairites are appalled by the idea, warning Read more

Jim Pickard

Ministers have been wrangling for years over how to introduce a new law allowing voters to kick out MPs who break the law.

But the final result has fallen far short of what was expected from some of its leading advocates, such as Tory MPs Zac Goldsmith and Douglas Carswell. It is not “Total Recall”, they say.

Mr Goldsmith said on Wednesday that the new law was “meaningless” – and vowed to work with Labour to amend the legislation.

Under the Recall of MPs Bill, constituents will be able to sack their MP if they are sentenced to up to 12 months in jail. Alternatively, they could trigger a by-election if the Commons’ authorities (usually the Standards and Privileges Committee) decides there has been “serious wrongdoing” by a Right Hon. Member. A by-election would then occur if 10 per cent of constituents signed a Read more

Jim Pickard

Danny Alexander is in a cheerful mood this morning, hailing a “jobs-rich recovery” on the back of fresh employment data. The figures “leave Labour’s economic narrative in tatters”, says the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury.

Certainly, earnings are nudging ahead of inflation for the first time in six years – if you ignore a bonus-related blip in 2010.

(Average earnings rose 1.7 per cent in the three months to March on a year earlier, nudging ahead of March’s 1.6 per cent consumer price inflation rate.)

If that trend continues it could seriously wound Labour’s “Cost of Living” narrative.

Although – and this is a major caveat – the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that real incomes will not return to their 2009-10 levels until 2018 at the earliest.

Employment soared by nearly a third of a million in only a quarter, the biggest three-month jump in over 40 years.

(Employment continued to rise rapidly, up by 283,000 to a record 30.43m in the three months to March compared with the previous quarter, the biggest quarterly increase since records began in 1971.)

Expect to hear lots of noise about this from David Cameron at PMQs later today.

And yet, the labour market is still not quite as wholesome as coalition ministers would like to suggest.

Today’s figures show a further drop in youth unemployment by 48,000, taking it to its lowest level since 2008. And yet young people are Read more

Jim Pickard

It is the Lib Dems who complain most vociferously about Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system.

If Britain had PR (proportional representation) the yellow party would have had 150 MPs in the current Parliament. Instead, they picked up 57 seats.

That may explain why Lib Dems are apostles of electoral reform.

But in 2015 they may appear beneficiaries of the voting system – at least in comparison with Ukip.

That is because most experts predict that the LibDem vote will hold firm in their strongholds such as Colchester, Eastleigh or Twickenham, where they retain a decent ground presence. Senior figures still expect to hold at least 40 seats, even if the party’s share of the vote was to halve from its previous showing of 23 per cent. Read more

Jim Pickard

When George Osborne stands up tomorrow he hopes to convince business that the coalition is doing all it can to help industry.

One of the biggest measures the chancellor is expected to set out is a freeze in a tax on fossil fuels called the “carbon price floor”. Read more

Jim Pickard

This interview with Tony Benn was never published by Weekend FT:

Former MP Tony Benn smokes his pipe outside the Palace of Westminster, London, Tuesday 18 March, 2003, during the debate in the House of Commons on the possibility of war aganist Iraq. See PA story POLITICS Iraq. PA Photo: Matthew Fearn

Tony Benn has not been chatting for long when my right hand begins to ache and I regret leaving my dictaphone at home.

The 83-year old has led the conversation through the Iraq War, training as a pilot in Rhodesia, Alan Greenspan, John Bolton and Herbert Asquith.

We have only been going for ten minutes or so. A cup of tea, balanced on a wooden stand in the corner of Benn’s living room, remains untouched as I scribble away.

Mr Benn has agreed to meet for a “Lunch with the FT” interview but asked do it at his house over tea rather than a restaurant.

The note pad on my lap is filling with reams of scrawled shorthand as my pen struggles to keep pace with Benn’s fruity vowels.

The voice, reminiscent of 1940s broadcasters, is one trademark of this most reknown of British politicians. Another is his pipe, from which he emits streams of tobacco smoke in my direction.

Some would say that Benn, former flag-bearer for the left-wing, has never stopped fighting a series of lost causes – from unilateral nuclear disarmament to the nationalisation of British industry.

Even now he is at it again, writing to all MPs urging them to vote for a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. It probably won’t happen, but that’s not the point. Benn opposed the UK’s Common Market membership in the 1975 referendum and will not give up the fight.

The man’s energy is impressive. On the day we meet he is due to attend a meeting of the Stop the War Coalition, of which he is president, ahead of a demonstration at the weekend. He is meanwhile putting together a guest speech to the Scottish Parliament.

He is a natural orator. The opinions come spilling out, sometimes in an ordered fashion, at other times in a jumble of inter-connected thoughts.

Carbon trading? Dreadful idea. The troops in Afghanistan? They should all be called back, like Prince Harry. Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama? Definitely Obama.

Not that Benn is entirely self-centred. Most interviewees, especially politicians, show little more than a cursory interest in the person they are talking to. Why bother, if you might never see the journalist again?

By contrast, he has done his homework on Google: “I see you worked at the Western Daily Press in the 90s,” he beams as I arrive at the door of his house on Holland Park Avenue, in one of London’s most expensive areas.

Later, he comments: “I saw that you won a prize last year?” I know I shouldn’t succumb to this flattery but the effect is disarming.

He offers tea or coffee, shows me into a living room filled with old furniture and paraphernalia – ranging from a Toby jug in his image to old miners’ lamps – and swiftly appears with a tray of hot drinks. His hands tremble as he pours my tea.

There are busts of Keir Hardie and Karl Marx, a mug (”Labour and Proud of It”) and a piano which he cannot play. “It’s a bit of a museum,” he says, faux-apologetically.

I lean back in my chair to avoid the fug of smoke and ponder Benn’s status as a political hero to the most unlikely of people.

Previously I had sieved through Benn’s press cuts. Recent profiles had all been glowing, Read more

Jim Pickard

The massive industrial dispute at Grangemouth refinery in Scotland last autumn prompted David Cameron to launch an inquiry into trade union tactics.

The prime minister said he had appointed Bruce Carr, an eminent QC – and industrial relations expert – to look into whether the law needed to be tightened up to prevent “harassment” and “intimidation” by union officials.

That move came after claims that a “mob” of Unite staff had gone to the house of a manager at the Ineos-owned Grangemouth refinery during the height of the dispute.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, insisted the inquiry was not politically motivated, arguing that such tactics had no place in industrial relations.

Protest should not be allowed to develop “into intimidation and clearly inappropriate activity,” with managers cast as “the enemy“, Mr Maude said.

Yet Vince Cable strikingly argued at the time that the inquiry should look at malpractice by unions – but also by employers, for example in the blacklisting scandal.

Nick Clegg, Lib Dem deputy prime minister, also insisted that the inquiry should examine “irresponsible business practices” as well as union misdemeanors.

Fast-forward four months and little appears to have happened with the inquiry, despite Read more

Jim Pickard

It was not long ago that a senior figure in the Miliband camp was claiming that the Labour leader had never described his funding reforms as a Clause 4 moment.

“Why would he? Clause 4 was about Labour’s aims and values,” that person told the FT. “This is about how we organise, how we relate to people outside the political elite and how we finance ourselves. Clause 4 did not cost us a penny. This will.”

That was two weeks ago.

Now, by contrast, Miliband is saying that the changes will be “bigger than Clause Four in its impact on the way it will change politics.”

The jury is still out on what the long-term impact of the reforms will be. No one could possibly argue that the system is not a move towards greater democracy in the way that some decisions (but not all*) are taken inside Labour.

Yet, as I’ve previously explained, there is one scenario where the union barons have greater power than before in their ability to dispense cash to Labour – or withhold it: eventually.

One thing which people have not quite twigged yet, meanwhile, is the impact of the changes in the short-term. Read more