George Osborne has been touring the TV and radio studios this morning talking about the deals he has managed to strike with some of the smaller government departments for how they are going to cut their budgets in 2015/16. Talking about the settlements made with departments including Justice, Energy and Communities, the chancellor told the BBC:
We are now about 20 per cent of the way there with a month to go. I don’t think any chancellor in history has made this much progress with a month to go.
Osborne still has a huge amount to achieve in the next month, particularly in the face of intransigence from big departments such as the MoD and the Home Office. But in the middle of the spending round process, another decision on a massive item of government spending will also come a step closer. Read more
Nick Clegg this morning insisted he would stay in government until 2015, and would not need to create any “breathing space” for his party by pulling his ministers out before the general election. This is what he said in a speech in London:
The public will see me [campaigning] as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Constitutionally the government still ticks over. Ministers are slightly more “absentee landlords” in Whitehall offices during that six week period.
Of course, Clegg is right that the public is used to ministers leaving their day jobs and hitting the campaign trail during the weeks leading up to a general election. And he may also be right that voters would think it very odd if the Lib Dems pulled out of the coalition just before an election in order to assert their own identity more clearly. Read more
At around 8pm last night, someone in Sir George Young’s office phoned someone in Ed Miliband’s office. Not enough Tories are going to vote against the amendment from Tim Loughton intended to wreck the gay marriage bill, the person explained. Labour would have to vote against or risk the bill being derailed.
Ed Miliband agreed, and encouraged his MPs to do the same. In the end, the amendment was defeated, but only thanks to Labour’s action. So it was no surprise to see headlines such as that in the Guardian this morning, which read: Read more
Last night, politicians, government officials and a smattering of journalists gathered in the ornate surrounds of the Scotland Office to hear Jean Chrétien, the former Canadian PM, give his view on referendums.
Chrétien knows more than most world leaders about what it is like to try and stop nationalists in one part of the country from seceding – he won two referendums against Quebec separatists.
And in case coalition officials were beginning to feel comfortable with the convincing lead held by the pro-union side in the Scottish independence debate, Chrétien had a rather ominous message. Read more
As 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
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
Earlier 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
Last 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.]
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
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.
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
Of 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
Today 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.
The 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
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
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
Tory 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
As 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
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
Talking 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