Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg leafletAs a fellow hack remarked to me on the way out of the Commons chamber after PMQs this week, imagine if it had been the other way round.

Imagine that David Cameron had not been in New York and had been taking prime minister’s questions instead of Nick Clegg, his deputy. And imagine that Lib Dem after Lib Dem – five in total – had stood up to attack the prime minister over their pet project – let’s say the mansion tax, for example. What would have happened?

Almost undoubtedly, there would have been fury on the Tory benches. Cameron would probably have told Clegg to get his troops in line and Conservative backbenchers would have complained quite fairly that the government agenda was being derailed by something that only one side really cared about. Read more

Kiran Stacey

The Tories have just published their draft EU referendum bill. Most of it is fairly meaningless technicalities. But the proposed wording is interesting. The party plans to ask voters:

Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?

Referendum questions are usually a source of tense, if technical political debate. The two things do watch out for are: Read more

Kiran Stacey

Danny AlexanderEarlier this year, Danny Alexander told the FT he was going to use the levers of government to get companies to pay their fair share of tax. Specifically, he was going to stop companies from winning big Whitehall contracts if they haven’t complied with tax rules. He told us at the time:

If you work for the government, whether you’re an individual employee or a company that has got a contract with the government, you need to be behaving properly with regard to tax rules.

His comments came after an FT investigation showed some of the world’s biggest IT companies that provide services to the government, use ingenious and somewhat aggressive tactics to avoid paying UK corporation tax. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Iain Duncan SmithLast year I got a call from someone at DWP. The call went roughly as follows:

DWP: We’ve got a story for you. Figures show that the benefit cap is working and it hasn’t even been brought in yet.

Me: Really? How do they do that?

DWP: Well the number of people who have come off benefits since we announced the policy is XXX thousand. [I forget the actual number the person used.]

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

It was an interesting tactic from Stephen Williams to use his “humble address” before the Queen’s Speech to make a remark about lobbyists in helping form the government’s programme. Talking about dropped plans to introduce a register of lobbyists and plain cigarette packaging, Williams said:

Some will conclude that the tobacco lobbyists will celebrate this as a double victory.

One lobbyist the Lib Dem MP may have been referring to is Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s election strategist, whose lobbying firm, as we reported this morning, has worked for British American Tobacco. Read more

Kiran Stacey

The news this morning has been dominated by the piece written in today’s Times by Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor, who has said he would vote to leave the EU.

He repeated criticisms first made to the FT back in January, when he attacked David Cameron’s strategy of renegotiating powers from Brussels. He told us at the time:

It would be politically very difficult, if not impossible, for Cameron to agree to give up our budget rebate and that’s a precondition of any change.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

One of the most interesting aspects of the Ukip successes today is watching how the Tories respond. We are getting signs that David Cameron is going for a placatory tone, backing away from previous characterisations of the party as “loonies and fruitcakes”.

But one of the more telling interventions came this morning from John Baron, who has led a campaign of eurosceptic Tory backbenchers trying to force the prime minister to legislate in this parliament for an EU referendum in the next.

Baron told the Today programme: Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg at the Harvey's breweryOf all the campaigns in this local election, the Lib Dem one has probably been the lowest-key. As Westminster has focused on the steady rise of Ukip, and what that means for both the Tory and Labour vote, the Lib Dems have plugged away beneath the radar.

That suits Nick Clegg. His party is predicted to lose over 100 seats from today’s vote, and the less attention the media pays to Lib Dem failures, the better, from his point of view.

That was summed up by Clegg’s final day of campaigning, which was spent on a whistle-stop trip to the Harvey’s brewery in Lewes, where he met a maximum of 15 members of staff during a tour of the brewery, before conducting a few interviews and dashing back to London on government business. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Vince CableToday sees a fresh spat in the running war between Vince Cable and some of Britain’s biggest pub owners.

Last week, the business secretary launched a new statutory code of conduct which larger pub companies will have to sign up to. Cable said at the time:

In too many cases tenants are being exploited and squeezed, through a combination of unfair practices, lack of transparency and a focus on short-termism at the expense of the long-term sustainability of the sector.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

Steve HiltonThe guru is back. Steve Hilton, fresh from his sojourn in the US, is to return to Number 10 to advise the new political policy unit, headed up by Jo Johnson, we have been told.

Except that’s not quite the case. Hilton, whose wife works for Google on the west coast, will stay in his beloved California. Number 10 advisers tell us he is expected to fly to London “a few times a year” to discuss policy ideas with the new policy board.

When Hilton left to take up a new role at Stanford University last year, some insisted the PM’s most unconventional of thinkers would be back in time for the next election. But those in the know insisted he would never return, saying he had become disillusioned with politics in government, and had lost a long-running battle with the more moderate factions within the Cameron operation. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Over lunch recently, a Labour strategist spelled out the terms of the next election in the starkest terms. “They want to fight it on welfare,” he explained. “We want to fight on the NHS.”

So despite the threat of the statistics authorities confirming that Britain has entered a triple-dip recession tomorrow, Ed Miliband chose to focus this PMQs on the NHS.

The problem was, his material is a little thin. He began by mentioning rising waiting times in A&E wards, as well as the example in Norwich of an inflatable tent being used as a makeshift ward. His first question was: Read more

Kiran Stacey

In the run-up to last year’s reshuffle, a rumour circulated that Jo Swinson was going to be elevated from being Nick Clegg‘s PPS, not only to ministerial level, but straight into the cabinet – specifically as Scotland secretary.

This didn’t happen – Swinson was instead made a junior minister at Bis. But with half a eye on a reshuffle later this year (which seems to have now been pushed back from a provisional June date to autumn at the earliest), the rumours have started once more.

There are plenty of reasons some in the party are pushing the idea: Read more

Kiran Stacey

House of LordsTory backbenchers probably thought that when they ganged together to thwart attempts to make the Lords mostly elected last year, they had got rid of what they saw as a “constitutional threat” for the foreseeable future.

But conversations I have had in recent days with senior Liberal Democrats suggest there is a scenario under which the plans could be resurrected.

Officials close to Nick Clegg have told me that if there was a hung parliament at the next election and a deal with the Conservatives was the most likely outcome, this would give them an opening to insist that the plans were put back on the table. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Protests against Cameron, Clegg and ThatcherAs today’s parliamentary session in memory of Margaret Thatcher began, several journalists repositioned themselves in the Tory side of the chamber, looking at Ed Miliband. The Labour leader, it was though, would have the most difficult job, caught between being respectful and saying what he really thought about the Tory leader whom so many of his colleagues spent decades opposing and trying to oust.

In the end, he played a difficult hand very well. The key passage was one where he listed her successes and mistakes. I will quote the entire passage below, but it’s worth noticing three things:

1) He quotes the successes first, and is generous about them, even her economic legacy;
2) He mentions some of what her critics see as her most egregious mistakes, such as section 28 and her lack of concern for society as a whole;
3) When mentioning her mistakes, he nullified Tory moans by praising the Tories for turning their backs on them. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Job Centre

I was interested to read the piece by Alex Massie in this morning’s Scotsman, in which he argued:

Scots may take an even tougher line on welfare than voters elsewhere in the UK… Visit any working-class pub in Scotland and you will hear opinions that make IDS seem like Polly Toynbee.

If this is true, it makes the SNP position problematic. The party has consistently opposed the coalition’s welfare cuts, and when Johann Lamont, Labour’s Scottish leader, suggested axing certain universal benefits, such as free prescriptions, the SNP called it her “speech of madness”.

So what does the polling suggest? A fairly comprehensive look shows us two things: 1) Scottish voters are less hostile to the welfare system than elsewhere in the UK; but 2) they remain in favour of benefit cuts. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Danny AlexanderTalking to a senior Liberal Democrat the other day, talk turned to which of their MPs are at risk at the next election. This person reckoned the party could feasibly hold on to between 43 and 50 seats, which would be a major triumph given the meltdown many have been predicting for the last few months.

One seat this person insisted was safe was that of Danny Alexander. Why, I asked – because Inverness voters like having a political heavyweight (before you criticise, he is a member of the quad) as their MP? To a certain extent, they replied. Because the voters there are died-in-the-wool Lib Dems? Not especially, they said. Why then? Because Inverness has done very well out of Danny Alexander.

On several occasions since Alexander became Treasury chief secretary, there have been small but significant giveaways that help, among other places, Inverness in particular. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Peter MandelsonAmid the genteel surroundings of the Park Lane Hotel ballroom last night at the CBI’s annual black-tie dinner, Lord Mandelson was at his waspish best.

His keynote speech was ostensibly about Britain’s role in Europe, but he couldn’t resist throwing in a few barbed remarks about his Labour colleagues, both past and present. Departing from his pre-prepared script, the former business secretary had this to say about Gordon Brown, the man he served so closely in the dying days of the Labour government:

I can’t remember which who the member of the government was who claimed we abolished boom and bust. Well, we abolished boom…

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Kiran Stacey

HMS Ark Royal on a farewell tourLast month, we mapped out what each department could expect to face in the June spending review given the Treasury’s promise to keep cutting at the same pace as it has done before.

That study showed some of the most sensitive departments were in line for the steepest cuts. Local government was in line for £1.3bn of cuts, the business department, just over £1bn, and most sensitively of all, defence, nearly £700m.

Those calculations, however, only got us up to just over £7bn of cuts. We decided to take a cautious view, sticking to the idea of spending falling at the same trajectory as it has been so far, rather than striving to hit the £10bn figure. Read more

Kiran Stacey

David Cameron is currently leading a debate in the Commons over the deal struck late last night to regulate the press with a Royal Charter. That debate has so far been characterised by a great deal of backslapping by all three party leaders, to the extent that Nick Clegg joked:

If all three parties behave like this after the general election, they’ll have problems fitting us all into Downing Street.

He had a slightly tougher time however when trying to explain the measures to the parliamentary Tory party, which met before the debate started. Read more

Kiran Stacey

British newspapersSince Thursday, the manoeuvrings over press regulation have taken increasingly more surreal turns.

First we had the prime minister abruptly calling off the talks, citing irreconcilable differences with Labour and the Lib Dems. Clegg and Miliband were only given a couple of hours’ notice about the announcement, journalists were given 30 minutes.

After that, it looked like the prime minister was heading for inevitable defeat in a vote today on the Lib-Lab proposals for a Royal Charter backed by statute. His aides seemed to recognise such, saying that the prime minister would promise to repeal such a law if there was a Tory majority in 2015. Read more