Conservatives

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.

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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.]

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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