Kiran Stacey

HS2 protest signThe 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

Kiran Stacey

Philip HammondPhilip 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.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

Trident missileGeorge 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

Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg

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

Kiran Stacey

Campaigners for equal marriageAt 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 readRead more

Jim Pickard

David Cameron has defied calls for Downing Street to publish a list of Lynton Crosby’s clients amid concerns about the Tory election supremo and his private lobbying business.

The prime minister has in the past called for more transparency with regard to the lobbying industry, saying that sunlight was “the best disinfectant”.

But Mr Cameron has dismissed suggestions that there could be any conflict of interest in having Mr Crosby, an Australian pollster and lobbyist, from working part-time for the Tory party while still advising his private  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

Jim Pickard

It was yesterday afternoon while we were about to board a flight from Andrews Air Base in Washington that the pack of journalists following the prime minister were suddenly told to gather for a briefing.

“You’re going to want to hear this,” said a senior Tory source.

He was not wrong. The breaking news – under embargo for 10pm UK time – was that David Cameron had decided after all to publish draft legislation that would enshrine the 2017 EU referendum in law.

The idea must have seemed a political masterstroke: to nip in the bud the latest uprising of Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers and PPSs (those barely-noticed ministerial bag carriers who occasionally make news by resigning.)

The Cameron team were aware, however, that the story would eclipse the 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

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

Elizabeth Rigby

David Cameron threw the ground troops a tasty little campaigning morsel on Tuesday with news that prisoners would not be getting any perks - Sky TV, state-of-the-art gyms – on the inside as the Tories sought to prove they were no soft touch party.

It was a helpful dog whistle for Tory activists campaigning ahead of the county council elections. But privately, the Conservative leadership is bracing itself for big losses. Ukip is gaining momentum and could well give Cameron a bloody nose on Thursday.

The party is instead trying to look beyond this electoral test to the big one in 2015. The process started in earnest back in January with the arrival of the pugnacious Lynton Crosby as election chief. Last week it was given another push as Jo Johnson was brought in with a handful of backbenchers to work in No 10′s policy unit. 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

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

Elizabeth Rigby

Nigel Farage signs a book of condolence for Margaret Thatcher

Nigel Farage signs a book of condolence for Margaret Thatcher

Tories will not be thinking much about next month’s local elections as they gather in parliament to partake in collective mourning over the death of Margaret Thatcher.

The danger for David Cameron is that the wave of nostalgia for her will only serve to divide his party even more, when he needs it the least. As Lynton Crosby remarks, divided parties don’t win elections. And the infighting within the Tories over the past year is doing little more than help push their supporters into the arms of Ukip.

Cameron’s initial fightback against the rise of Nigel Farage’s party came in January with the promise of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European UnionRead more

Lady Thatcher, Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, has died following a stroke. She was Britain’s first and only female prime minister and her economic and political legacy has resounded across the world. FT reporters Lina Saigol and Hannah Kuchler follow the global reaction.


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

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

George OsborneSome fascinating economic research by Ipsos Mori, published today, shows that George Osborne is the least popular chancellor in nearly a decade, with net approval ratings of -33. Nobody has had such bad ratings since Ken Clarke in the early 1990s.

At first sign this is unsurprising: this is the first recession we’ve had since the early 1990s (if you take 2008-now as one recession). But actually when you plot the popularity of chancellor’s against economic growth, the two are surprisingly unconnected.

Plotting chancellors’ approval ratings since 1976 tells us a few things: Read more