A rather strange and fractious PMQs today. Amid much gnashing of teeth about the allegations surrounding Paul Flowers, the former chair of the Co-Op bank, and his links to Labour, Ed Miliband set off in an unexpected direction at the beginning of his questions. He asked the prime minister about “his campaign against the closure of children’s centres in Chipping Norton”.
It was an intriguing opening and Cameron floundered for a bit talking about “difficult decisions” on children’s centres. Miliband followed up by saying:
He has even signed a petition to save the children’s centre in his own area. Is he taking it right to the top?
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
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
The Freedom of Information Act has a clause which allows public authorities to ignore a request for information “if the request is vexatious”. It says little about what members of the public can do if they encounter vexatious government departments.
The Cabinet Office – which includes the prime minister’s office – seems now to be openly refusing to comply with the transparency law, especially when it comes to the person of the prime minister. His courtiers seem to regard FoIA requests as lèse-majesté, and to regard their job as being to fight transparency. Read more
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
The government has set great store by its £5bn plan to get people who have been unemployed for a long time back into work. David Cameron has called it “the biggest and boldest programme since the great depression”.
Expensive though the scheme sounds, it is actually much cheaper than its predecessor, Labour’s Future Jobs Fund. The problem is, it isn’t working.
Figures out today show the programme has improved since last year, when providers were way off hitting their minimum performance targets – but not enough. Read more
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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