George Osborne has presented his Autumn Statement. Its highlights included a large increase in the economic growth forecast, a predicted budget surplus in 2018, a hike in the state pension age and free school meals for all infants.
By John Aglionby and Emily Cadman with contributions from FT colleagues
Last week, Ed Miliband was beaten by the prime minister after failing to build a clear narrative from his rather scattergun questions. This week he was more disciplined, and had a clear and coherent attack. For some reason however, it didn’t generate the response from Labour MPs you might expect.
The Labour leader decided to lead on the government’s decision to set a cap on the amount of interest payday lenders can charge. It might not have been an obvious attack, given Labour also supports the policy, but Miliband worked it cleverly to his advantage, asking why this sort of market intervention is a good thing, when capping energy energy prices constitutes “Marxism”:
How did he go from believing that intervening in the markets is living in a Marxist universe to believing it is the solemn duty of government?
In the wake of the Labour party conference, hacks returned from Brighton with one question for Tory advisers: how will you counter Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze?
We won’t, came the reply. We don’t want to get into a micro-battle about who has the best giveaways for the public on cost-of-living. We will keep the focus on the big picture, on the nascent economic recovery – how that is the only thing that can sustain rising living standards and only we can be trusted to safeguard it.
That policy made sense, and was stuck to for a few weeks at least. During his conference speech, the prime minister resisted the temptation to promise a big giveaway, or really, any significant policy whatsoever. His critics said it was lacklustre, his supporters said it perfectly matched the tone of “steady as she goes”. Read more
Yesterday’s pledge by David Cameron to “roll back green levies”, made in the heat of PMQs, apparently caught his coalition partners by surprise. While the government had been discussing reducing certain levies, the Lib Dems had not agreed to anything specific and did not expect it to be made public.
This morning, Clegg decided to seize the initiative. Clearly irritated by the prime minister’s decision to float policies without checking them, he decided to float his own idea, as anathema to the Tories as reducing green measures is to the Lib Dems – raising taxes.
He told the Today programme: Read more
We get the politicians we deserve, but politicians do not always get the reputations they deserve. None has been short-changed by history more stingily than Sir John Major, the former British prime minister still invoked in some quarters – including his own Conservative party – as a synonym for haplessness and weak leadership.
Not the least of his qualities is a grown-up disinclination to fight for his good name. He could, as Margaret Thatcher did and Tony Blair still does, hover about in public life, talking up his achievements, nudging his successors this way or that. Instead, he has gone for a kind of dignified elusiveness. All we can surmise about his life now is that he puts his name to some good causes and still enjoys a Test match. Yesterday, a wowing guest turn at the parliamentary press gallery lunch restored him to the headlines for the first time in an age. Read more
There may have been 180 MPs at the Conservative party’s away day at Chipping Norton’s Crowne Plaza but even the most mischievous of them were in lockdown over the event, instructed by the pugnacious Lynton Crosby not to reveal anything about the polling information or campaigning tips discussed at the heavily guarded event on Thursday.
The attendees were not even allowed to talk about their smart casual dress; the pasta and Caesar salad lunch; the game of football on the lawn. Read more
Most of the political class have spent the past few days watching a Vince Cable and Nick Clegg battle for position at the Lib Dem conference. But when they return to Westminster tomorrow they will find another fight underway over who becomes deputy speaker of the House of Commons.
The post, vacated by Nigel Evans after he was charged with a series of alleged sex offences
against last week, must be filled by a fellow Tory. Those poised to throw their hats in the ring include Brian Binley, a right-winger and leading light in the 1922 backbench committee; Sir Roger Gale, a grandee who has spent three decades on the benches as MP for Thanet North; and Eleanor Laing, Downing Street’s preferred choice. (Also Nadine Dorries is said to be interested.) Read more
Just to pour a bit more controversy over the Conservative Renewal conference (where Tim Loughton made his comments about Sarah Teather) Robert McLean, the chair of the Windsor Conservative Association, was also forced to put out a curious statement. In this he disavowed comments from George Bathhurst, Windsor councillor and a organiser of the conference.
Robert McLean, Chairman of the Windsor Conservative Association, said:
Windsor Conservative Association (‘WCA’) wishes to make clear that it wholly dissociates itself from recent comments made by George Bathurst in relation to the Conservative Renewal conference that do not reflect the views of WCA nor our member of parliament.
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
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
Defeat in Thursday night’s parliamentary vote on the principle of military action in Syria is not an existential wound for David Cameron, whatever his more excitable enemies say. But, after several months of good form, the prime minister looks weaker than at any time since taking office more than three years ago. Failing to win over Liberal Democrat MPs in his coalition government is one thing. Being defied by his own Tories is quite another. Prime ministers are simply not supposed to lose House of Commons votes on major matters of foreign policy.
Mr Cameron recalled parliament from its summer recess in the assumption that securing its support for some kind of intervention in Syria would be straightforward. That has turned out to be mortifyingly complacent. And this is not merely hindsight speaking. It should have been obvious after the apparent chemical attack by the Syrian regime earlier this month that the widespread revulsion in Britain was not matched by an appetite to get involved. Voters and MPs were openly sceptical; the armed forces were privately reluctant. Only an assiduous campaign of persuasion would have swung the argument, and it never came. William Hague, Mr Cameron’s well-regarded foreign secretary, was too reticent. 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
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
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.
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
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.
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