Coalition

Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg on the campaign trailLib Dem strategists are fond of telling reporters their assumptions about a Lib Dem collapse at the 2015 election are wrong. The theory goes that there are many more LD-Tory marginals than there are LD-Labour ones, and in those seats, Tory voters will be happy to back a Lib Dem to keep out Labour.

Lib Dem HQ hopes that by going into coalition and signing up to the stringent departmental spending cuts they will combine their traditional strength in local campaigning with a new level of trust to be a party of national government.

The argument is questionable: will Tory voters really back then Lib Dems, especially as the two parties go into the election playing up their differences to appeal to their core voters? And won’t lots of left-wing voters cross over to Labour, even if they know it means letting in the Tories, since many view the Lib Dem as just as bad as their Tory counterparts? Read more

Kiran Stacey

BonfireWe learned this morning of the latest progress in the so-called “bonfire of the quangos”, the sharp cuts to semi-governmental bodies being carried out by Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister.

As the BBC reported:

More than 100 quangos have been axed and a further 90 merged into other bodies since the coalition came to power, ministers have said.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said the cull of publicly funded agencies was on track to save £2.6bn by the end of this Parliament.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

Danny Boyle's tribute to the NHS at the Olympics opening ceremony

Danny Boyle's opening ceremony tribute to the NHS

The Times and the Independent both broke an interesting story this morning about government plans to set up a body to promote NHS expertise across the world as a way of making money for the domestic health service.

The Independent reports:

Some of Britain’s best-known hospitals are being lined up by the Government to export the “NHS brand” around the world and set up profit-making branches overseas to boost their incomes.

Under a radical plan to be launched this autumn, officials from the Department of Health and UK Trade and Investment will come together to act as a “dating agency” between hospitals that wish to expand overseas and foreign governments with a demand for British health services.

 Read more

Helen Warrell

As I reported today, the Treasury is looking seriously into the idea of adopting German-style “mini jobs”, a scheme long championed by free market Conservative MPs. The model is that workers can earn up to €400, or £314, tax free each month, while their employers benefit from flexible labour with minimal bureaucracy: they pay a flat rate of wage taxes, insurance and pension contributions.

It is easy to see why companies and jobseekers might be clamouring for the government to pick this up, but there is actually a serious political case as well. Tories who were frustrated by the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to radical labour market reforms put forward by Adrian Beecroft have been calling for ministers to come forward with some new deregulation measures for some time.

The Lib Dems themselves are keen not to be seen as too obstructionist on this issue given the drive for growth, and party officials have assured me that they are not pushing back against the mini jobs idea. Could this be the middle way? Read more

Kiran Stacey

Alex Salmond with David CameronIt has been assumed in Westminster for several months now that the Scots will get an independence referendum, and it will happen in 2014. But mutterings are beginning to emerge that this may not happen at all - and here is why.

After David Cameron signalled he was willing to give way on his preferred date of 2013, the only things left to work out were supposed to be who got to vote and what the question would be.

The first of those points of tension looks close to being settled. Number 10 this morning all but admitted it was willing to let 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum if the SNP insisted on it. When asked if allowing this to happen would set a precedent for general elections, a Downing Street spokesman said:

These are two different things. One is a referendum on the independence of a nation which is an irreversible decision. The other is an election for the government, which can be reversed after five years.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

George Osborne

George Osborne

This morning’s papers are not going to make comfortable reading for George Osborne (not the first time we’ve said that recently…).

The Guardian has splashed on a story in the New Statesman that several of the 20 economists who signed a letter in 2010 backing the Osborne deficit reduction strategy had now changed their minds. The story was picked up in other papers too.

But of greater political significance is the piece I wrote in this morning’s FT about how the first fissures are starting to show in the joint coalition commitment to Plan A. Three Lib Dem MPs went on the record to say they wanted the chancellor to be more flexible with his   spending plans, and allow the deficit reduction targets to slide in order to pay for a short-term stimulus. Read more

Kiran Stacey

 

Sir John Vickers

Sir John Vickers

I revealed in this morning’s FT that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable want to reopen talks on how to put the Vickers recommendations on banking reform into law.

When the commission led by Sir John Vickers first set out its proposals, the government accepted most of them – most significantly that banks’ retail operations should be ringfenced from their investment banking side.

But the banks won two crucial victories in their attempts to water down these proposals. The first was that the government scrapped the Vickers recommendation that ringfenced banks should have stricter standards on how much equity they had to issue compared with their assets. The second was that ministers allowed for interest-rate and currency swaps to be sold from within the ringfenced arms of banks, putting them in the same category as ordinary loans and making them cheaper and easier to sell. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick CleggNick Clegg yesterday exacted the price his ministers and advisers had long warned would be paid for the Tories scuppering Lord reform: the Lib Dem leader in turn killed off the boundary changes, which are important to his coalition partners’ chances of a 2015 majority.

Most Westminster watchers saw it for what it was: a piece of tit-for-tat politics that was not particularly edifying, but probably important for the Lib Dems to show they were willing to use their muscle to get what they want.

Clegg attempted to appeal to principle when giving his rationale for the move yesterday. He said:

Lords reform and boundaries are two, separate parliamentary bills but they are both part of a package of overall political reform. Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance – not just in the Coalition Agreement, but also in our political system.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

 

Stephen Hester, RBS CEO

Stephen Hester, chief executive of RBS

We reported this morning on high-level discussions in the government about the possibility of buying out the remaining 18 per cent of RBS that taxpayers do not already own.

The argument for doing so runs like this: we are already exposed to the vast majority of the bank’s hugely damaged balance sheet, and the losses only look like getting worse as we find out more about its distressed debt.

Given that, would it not be better to take advantage of our holding and actually use the bank to pump some credit into our stagnating economy?

At the moment, the problem with doing this is that it means making loans the bank does not currently consider commercially viable. That would be a dereliction of duty to the remaining private shareholders, who would have every reason to sue. The answer therefore is simply to buy them out, and actually use the government’s stake to achieve what it is trying to do. Read more

Kiran Stacey

David CameronDavid Cameron’s interview with the Telegraph this morning was interesting for lots of reasons. But the main one was his big hint of having to cope with austerity until 2020. Asked if there was likely to be a decade of cuts, the prime minister said:

This is a period for all countries, not just in Europe but I think you will see it in America too, where we have to deal with our deficits and we have to have sustainable debts. I can’t see any time soon when…the pressure will be off.

I don’t see a time when difficult spending choices are going to go away.

Bleak words, which echoed what Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, said last month. He told an audience at the Institute for Government:

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

House of LordsMany in Westminster are convinced Lords reform will not go ahead: and for good reason. Tory backbenchers are overwhelmingly opposed, and many have said they will vote against. What’s more, there is next to no chance the proposals will manage to make it through the Lords. What hope then, of the bill ever making it onto the statute book?

Actually, quite a good chance. And this is how it will (probably) happen.

1) The bill will pass the Commons. Although a large rump of Tory backbenchers will defy the whip and vote against, Labour has promised to vote in favour. Even if those in the opposition who are implacably opposed to an elected second chamber defy the Labour whip, there should easily be enough votes from Tory and Labour loyalists, plus all the Lib Dems, to make sure it passes. Read more

Kiran Stacey

1968 Black Power salute

The 1968 protest which the UK fears Argentina may copy

A week ago, the Sunday Times revealed Whitehall fears about Argentina using the Olympics as a platform for protest against British control of the Falkland Islands. The paper reported:

Ministers are worried about a possible demonstration by Argentine athletes similar to the one staged at the 1968 Games in Mexico City by African-American athletes at the men’s 200m medal ceremony.

Any symbolic gesture by team members would be broadcast worldwide, fuelling tensions between Britain and Argentina. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are already strained.

Since then, Christina Kirchner, the Argentinian president, has tried to reassure anxious Brits and Olympic officials by telling her athletes not to do anything “stupid”. She said:

We’re not stupid. We don’t need to use sport to stand up for our rights. We’ll defend our rights in appropriate forums, like the UN.

Well, just in case the athletes didn’t get the message, Jeremy Browne, the foreign office minister for South America, has put further pressure on the Argentinians. In an interview with the FT, he made it clear the British government would see such a protest as a serious escalation of hostilities (emphasis mine): Read more

Kiran Stacey

Members of the House of LordsAfter weeks of shadow boxing, ministers are finally publishing their proposals on reforming the House of Lords today. They include an 80 per cent elected chamber, filled with 450 part-time “senators”, elected by regional list.

Tory backbenchers are already up in arms, threatening rebellion and, in the case of some ministerial aides, resignation. Conor Burns, PPS to Owen Paterson, said this morning:

If I lose my job for something that was a mainstream view within the Conservative party within the last parliament, which serving cabinet ministers held as their view, so be it.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

Reading this morning’s papers, you would have known that Michael Gove’s proposals to scrap GCSEs and bring back two levels of qualification for 16-year-olds have sparked a row. But to a greater extent than any recent government, this row is not between the government and the opposition, it is within the government. The papers reported:

Michael Gove has ignited a furious coalition row with the Liberal Democrats… (FT)

Nick Clegg vows to block Michael Gove’s plan to ditch GCSEs (Guardian)

Nick Clegg erupted with fury and vowed to block Michael Gove’s proposals… (Daily Mail)

To an extent, this suits both coalition partners: Gove gets to posture in front of the Tory faithful, while the Lib Dems get to show their muscle when the eventual compromise is reached. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Vince Cable has reignited one of the questions that has dogged the coalition since it formed: when will it split up? Talking to BBC 5 Live’s John Pienaar, the business secretary said:

Everybody involved knows that before the next general election the two parties will have to establish their own separate platforms and identity.

But how that disengagement takes place, over what time period is very much an issue for the future, certainly not something we’re talking about at the moment.

The question is, what exactly does Cable mean by “disengagement”? Read more

Kiran Stacey

Is the government in danger of handing over its reputation for being pro-business to Labour?

William Hague’s message in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph that businesses should “work harder” to promote growth was certainly bold.

At a time when the economy is stagnating and the government’s strategy is increasingly being questioned, turning round and blaming the sector of the economy you’re relying on to turn that round seems like a reckless strategy.

Before we get on to why it’s not a good idea to blame business for not supporting growth, let’s mention why Hague has a point:

  1. The govt is implementing the cuts programme many business groups have supported, and is sticking to it.
  2. Corporation tax is low and getting lower – on its way down to 20 per cent.
  3. Embassies around the world are pushing UK trade as their top priority, and the prime minister has taken huge business delegations on state visits with him on several occasions.

 Read more

Jim Pickard

The House of Lords authorities are refusing to hand over officials’ estimates of how much it will cost taxpayers to replace the chamber with a mostly elected senate, prompting anger from Tory politicians.

Officials have rejected a freedom of information request by the Financial Times, saying that the relevant information was produced “solely” for the joint committee on Lords reform. “A decision was taken by them not to publish it as part of their report,” they said in their response.

David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden, said there was a “clear-cut case” for the cost estimates to be put in the public domain.

There is a very clear argument for this,” said the influential former frontbencher. “It will be very hard for them to refuse to do it.” Mr David predicted that the question would be put to Nick Clegg: “What’s he going to say? ‘We don’t know?’ He can’t do that can he?

Another Tory MP told the FT: “This is a genuine public issue how can we reach a decision about its merits when we have no cost-benefit analysis?

The issue comes to a head on Wednesday when Lords reform is part of the Queen’s speech setting out the legislative programme for the forthcoming parliamentary Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg, Andrew Lansley and David Cameron at Guy's HospitalA month ago, ministers gathered round the cabinet table to be told by Andrew Lansley that the health bill was about to finally pass through parliament and become an act. Those attending banged their desks – partly in celebration, partly with pure relief. After 14 months of delays, negotiations and public rows, one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation from this session was finally about to be left behind.

Except it wasn’t. From next month MPs will start voting all over again on Lansley’s plans. What many in the coalition didn’t realise was that the act (as it now is) made so many changes to the infrastructure of the NHS that parliament will face a series of votes simply to create the bodies necessary to make them work. Clinical commissioning groups, Health Watch, Health Education England, Public Health England: the plethora of new quangos at the heart of the act all need to be legislated for. Read more

Jim Pickard

Lords reform is widely seen as a hobbyhorse of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats –yet it is a Tory minister whose task is to push through the legislation to transform parliament’s upper house.

Indeed, aides to Mr Clegg have jokingly referred to it as “the Mark Harper bill” in their attempts to downplay the idea that the deputy prime minister is obsessedby removing the unelected peers.

Mr Harper has a delicate task in front of him; steering through a full shake-up of the Lords which has evaded other politicians for a century.

A press officer warns the FT that the minister keeps his office at a low temperature: but this habit may not prepare him for the frosty reception he will face in parliament during next year’s legislative marathon.

Peers and MPs of all parties have already lined up to oppose the bill. Even if it passes through the Commons without mishap it is likely to be ambushed by the combined forces of Tory, Labour, and even some Lib Dem peers.

There could be a repeat of the filibustering and all-night sittings dominated the Lords in the spring of 2011 over the alternative vote bill.

Nick Clegg has threatened to use the Parliament Act to force it through, but weeks of debate are expected, taking up large amounts of next year’s political calendar.

Mr Harper tells the FT that bill should not take up a “disproportionate” amount of time: but warns potential trouble-makers:

I don’t think the public would understand if people told the public they don’t care hugely about this legislation but then let it (in-fighting) damage the rest of the programme,” he says.

Even David Cameron once said he saw Lords reform as a “third term issue”, implying it was a very low priority. But Mr Harper says the prime minister is fully signed up to the Read more

Kiran Stacey

The data released last night on how much the super-rich paid in tax in 2010-11 was fascinating. As Robert Peston comments on his blog, getting this information out of the last government was nigh-on impossible, as Labour didn’t want to put wealthy people’s tax affairs in the spotlight. So it is an amazing irony that it is a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition that is choosing to do so instead, as it looks to bolster support for its unpopular decision to cap tax reliefs, which will impact on charitable giving.

The Treasury released the data in an attempt to show us how much rich people avoid tax. George Osborne told the Telegraph that when he saw these figures he was “shocked”. And certainly there are some shocking figures within them, such as that thousands of people in the 50p tax band actually pay less than 20 per cent tax. Twelve people who are mega-rich, earning over £10m, even pay less than 10 per centRead more