As we head towards next week’s Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, the party’s big beasts are making themselves visible, lining up to point out the great Lib Dems successes of the last three years, and more importantly, to attack their opponents.
One thing that is worth watching is who is attacking which opponent. Over the last two days, two prominent Lib Dems have given very different interviews to the New Statesman which help crystallise a battle that might yet determine which government we have in 2015.
In the left corner (as it were), there is Tim Farron, who told George Eaton this: Read more
This brief stint when parliament returns from its summer break only to depart again two weeks later for party conferences is a slightly strange innovation. Its main purpose is to help the government get through its agenda (the lobbying bill is being pushed through parliament at the moment, for example), but it also helps set the mood of all three parties as they head towards their annual get-togethers.
For a leader who has enjoyed a relatively good summer, it is a chance to use that as a rallying point and gain extra momentum before conference. For one who has had a difficult one, the emphasis must be on scoring a couple of quick hits to give the troops some hope at least.
Ed Miliband has had a difficult summer, as a complete lack of direction from Labour HQ saw the government dominate the news agenda. But he was given a reprieve in the form of the prime minister’s botched Syria vote, which made it appear briefly that Miliband was more influential in forming foreign policy than the prime minister. Read more
This weekend, a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times showed Labour with a 10-point lead over the Tories. After a bruising summer for Ed Miliband, during which he has been accused of floundering and letting the coalition dictate the news agenda, this was welcome news in the Labour camp.
The polls have been steady for a long time now, giving Labour a lead of somewhere between 3 and 10 points (largely depending on where Ukip are – more of which later). Given the party probably only needs a two-point lead to win an overall majority, the party looks fair set. At least, that’s the argument of long-time Ed supporter Mehdi Hasan, who argued last week: Read more
When Ed Miliband was deliberating last week on the approach to take for Thursday’s vote on military strikes against Syria, he kept his team very tight. Miliband, Stewart Wood, Douglas Alexander, Tim Livesey (his chief of staff) and Hilary Benn (the former development secretary) were the inner circle. Others were not necessarily deliberately excluded, but simply not present when the key decisions were being made.
Over the weekend, many of those others – especially the Blairites – began to express disquiet at the result. Ben Bradshaw, the former minister, said the result was “not what any of the main parties or their leaders wanted”. Jim Murphy, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, said: “There is some unease about the outcome off the vote and I share it. It’s not what I wanted.” Read more
Two factors stand out as having contributed to David Cameron’s unprecedented defeat last night at the hands of Labour, and more significantly, government rebels: a pinch of farce and a great deal of hubris.
First the hubris. Cameron recalled parliament to vote on an issue of going to war, without properly having prepared the ground. The case for launching strikes on Syria had not been made, the consequences had not been spelled out, and the intelligence was slim.
This blasé attitude from the government was summed up in Cameron’s answer to one particular question: Read more
Labour people are starting to come back from their holidays, and they are in a mood little short of despair. Ed Miliband’s “summer of silence” and the criticism it has attracted from some of the party’s biggest beasts have made for a rather gloomy return for many of their MPs and advisers.
Miliband is relying on two events to reset that narrative and re-energise his party: the conference speech and a reshuffle either soon before or soon after conference. Both timings might seem unfair: just before the conference and new shadow ministers don’t have enough time to prepare for interviews and speeches; just after and all the hard pre-conference work is wasted. But such is politics. Read more
The Telegraph has a very interesting story today about Tory plans to change the way they would sign up to a coalition deal in future. In 2010, the leadership decided it wanted to do a deal with the Lib Dems – the rest of the parliamentary party was simply told to get in line.
This contrasted with the way the Lib Dems handled their side of the negotiation, calling a parliamentary meeting to discuss the deal before putting it to a vote of MPs and peers, before holding a special conference of the whole party so members could vote too.
Many Lib Dems have credited this process as the reason their party has been relatively disciplined while in coalition, while many Tory backbenchers have campaigned openly for them to ditch their partners. Read more
This morning Labour is trying to relaunch its summer after a fairly lethargic first couple of weeks in which the party was knocked sideways by outspoken comments by the previously little known MP George Mudie.
Chris Leslie, the shadow chief secretary, is holding a press event on falling living standards under the coalition, pointing to polling showing 70 per cent of voters believe recent improvements in the economy have not benefited middle- and lower-income families.
But the event is unlikely to quell concerns in Labour about the party’s apparent lack of direction. My colleague Jim Pickard reports in this morning’s FT some very revealing comments from a former senior Miliband supporter. Read more
British ministers have been much more reluctant than their American counterparts to call out the Chinese for launching cyber attacks on UK government departments and companies. Barack Obama said in March:
We’ve made it very clear to China and some other state actors that, you know, we expect them to follow international norms and abide by international rules. And we’ll have some pretty tough talk with them. We already have.
British ministers have been much more reticent to blame China for widespread cyber attacks. But the latest files released from the cache provided by Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower shows that in private, the British security services don’t pull their punches. One document says: Read more
Len McCluskey’s speech today to members of his Unite union was something of a barnstormer. The union boss was forthright on his views of the Labour party and its investigation into what happened in Falkirk, where Unite is accused of manipulating Labour candidate selection to boost its favoured candidates.
McCluskey tore into Ed Miliband and those around him, calling their decision to refer the Falkirk matter to police an “utter, utter disgrace”. He added:
Assertion was passed off as fact, allegation became reality.
It was the Americans who first broke ranks. Soon after David Cameron announced in January that he wanted to have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2017 (if he is elected prime minister), the US declared its opposition to the UK leaving. In remarkably frank words for a diplomat, a senior American official told reporters:
We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU. That is in America’s interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.
Since then, the Japanese have also weighed in on the Americans’ side. In evidence submitted to the first round of the government’s review of EU powers, Japan warns that as many as 130,000 jobs could be at risk if the UK does leave the union. In a memo to the foreign office, the Japanese government said: Read more
Chuka Umunna is ambitious: that much is well known. George Parker, the FT’s political editor, has a feature-length profile in this weekend’s FT Magazine, looking at the man, his goals, his standing in the party, and whether he really likes being compared to Barack Obama.
More of that later, but it is worth mentioning an interesting tale of the shadow business secretary’s self-confidence and grand ambitious that has reached us this week.
Several months ago, Umunna sat his shadow cabinet colleagues down and told them he had a great new idea for how to run government procurement. Instead of allowing the MoD to buy weapons, for example, or the Department for Transport to buy trains, why not have the business department do it all? Read more
Mark Carney has been given a pretty weighty task as he starts his tenure as governor of the Bank of England. In recent weeks, almost every time the chancellor or one of his aides has been asked about the prospects for growth, he has mentioned Carney and his track record of boosting the economy through unusual monetary policy tools.
Already we may have started to see signs of this, with Carney’s highly unusual first statement in which he said expectations of interest rates in 2015 were “unwarranted” – in effect a guarantee of long-term low rates.
But Lord Mandelson, Labour’s former business secretary, and a prominent pro-European, wants Carney to pay attention to what is happening on the other side of the channel too. Read more
This morning, Anna Soubry came to the Commons to explain why the government is shelving plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes. The problem is, the order to halt the plans came from Number 10 – Anna Soubry has repeatedly been clear that she supports plain packaging. She told a House of Lords Committee in March:
We know that the package itself plays an important part in the process of young people and their decision to buy a packet and to smoke cigarettes.
Those in favour of standardised packaging also make this important point: they say that there is evidence—and they are right… that the tobacco companies have changed their packaging quite deliberately to make very small packets of cigarettes that young women can slip into a small clutch, or 23 even into a part of their clothing, when they go out of an evening.
Another strange twist in the Labour/Falkirk story. After days of insisting this was an internal party matter, the party has now handed its investigation into the matter to police.
The allegations are that the Unite union bulk-bought membership of the party for its officers in an attempt to unfairly influence the outcome of the ballot to select a new candidate in the Scottish constituency.
The affair yesterday claimed the scalp of Tom Watson (left), Ed Miliband’s elections coordinator, who is close to Unite – he is a former flatmate of its secretary general, Len McCluskey. The party also suspended officials up in Falkirk and suspended the candidate selection process, hoping that might put an end to the matter. Read more
Traditional roles were reversed at today’s PMQs. Cameron pulled the ingenious trick of almost entirely ignoring what Ed Miliband asked (it was about school places). He attacked instead on the news that Unite have apparently tried to unfairly influence the outcome of a Labour candidate selection process in Falkirk.
The attacks were clumsily crowbarred in, but that will not matter when it comes to replaying the clips on television tonight. Here was one example: Read more
The planned high speed rail project from London to the midlands and the north is starting to look very uncertain indeed.
After the news last week that the estimated costs have spiked by £10bn since the beginning of the year, we then revealed in the FT that the government’s cost/benefit analysis assumed that no one would work on a train, increasing the apparent benefit of getting to your destination more quickly. Another chunk was taken out of the expected returns.
Now it seems that, having proposed the scheme in the first place, Labour is also getting cold feet. Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary who does not usually have much truck for nimbyism, launched a bitter attack on the project in this morning’s FT. He writes: Read more
The government has set great store by its £5bn plan to get people who have been unemployed for a long time back into work. David Cameron has called it “the biggest and boldest programme since the great depression”.
Expensive though the scheme sounds, it is actually much cheaper than its predecessor, Labour’s Future Jobs Fund. The problem is, it isn’t working.
Figures out today show the programme has improved since last year, when providers were way off hitting their minimum performance targets – but not enough. Read more
When George Osborne announces the 2015-16 departmental cuts today in the Commons, he will also spell out some more detail about how his plans for an AME cap will work. The idea behind this is that benefit spending will be treated more like departmental spending, where it is given a set limit, and then policies are adjusted to make sure spending doesn’t go higher than this.
In reality, this is little different to what happens now, as Ian Mulheirn of the Social Market Foundation explains here. But in terms of political rhetoric, this is an important tool for Osborne to claim he is clamping down on welfare spending. Read more
Philip Hammond appeared on the Today programme this morning defending his position after being accused of dragging his heels on the spending review.
The defence secretary has not yet submitted his draft plans for how he could cut 5 per cent of his budget in 2015-16 (half of that asked of other departments), but he told the BBC he was not a “hold out” adding that he hopes to have an “adult conversation” about where the axe should fall.
But in case anyone was in any doubt of how willing he is to stand up to the Treasury, he added this:
We should be very clear that there is a difference between efficiency savings, which may be difficult to achieve but are painless in terms of the impact on the front line, and output cuts, which are of a very different order and require proper and mature consideration across government about the impact that they will have on our military capabilities.