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
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
David Cameron and Nick Clegg were this morning falling over themselves to claim the credit for helping “hard working families” with news of a new voucher scheme that could be worth up to £1,200 per child.
After weeks of wrangling, the coalition was finally ready to press the button on a tax-free childcare scheme to replace the current “employer supported childcare” system. The new scheme will eventually reach up to 2.5m families – compared with the 450,000 who access the current voucher system – and include the self-employed. Read more
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
Since Thursday, the manoeuvrings over press regulation have taken increasingly more surreal turns.
First we had the prime minister abruptly calling off the talks, citing irreconcilable differences with Labour and the Lib Dems. Clegg and Miliband were only given a couple of hours’ notice about the announcement, journalists were given 30 minutes.
After that, it looked like the prime minister was heading for inevitable defeat in a vote today on the Lib-Lab proposals for a Royal Charter backed by statute. His aides seemed to recognise such, saying that the prime minister would promise to repeal such a law if there was a Tory majority in 2015. Read more
Sometimes when a leader of the opposition has a lot of different attacks to make on a prime minister at PMQs, they try to spread themselves too thinly and end up not hitting home with any of their pre-prepared lines.
Not so today. Ed Miliband was faced with a choice selection of easy pickings with which to attack the prime minister, and blended them together perfectly to leave David Cameron looking red-faced and ineffectual.
The Labour leader began with an uncharacteristically well-delivered joke about the apparent u-turn on minimum alcohol pricing: Read more
Twitter was awash with “TM4PM” frenzy over the weekend after Theresa May delivered a speech to the ConservativeHome 2015 Victory conference that carried the undertones of a leadership bid.
The home secretary used the gathering of Conservative activists to sketch out her vision of Conservatism, just in case David Cameron’s one doesn’t wash with voters in 2015. She went far beyond her remit as she floated the idea of profit-making schools and a comprehensive industrial strategy.
Tim Montgomerie, ConHome’s founder and editor who has just been appointed the Times’s comment editor, was quick to calm the hype. He pointed out that May had agreed to speak at the event last November, quashing any talk of a post-Eastleigh leadership push. He also said May was loyal to Cameron and that her loyalty was one of her best qualities. Read more
Ukip leader Nigel Farage has arrived. His invitation to dinner with Rupert Murdoch on Tuesday was almost as much of a sign of his growing political influence as the eurosceptic party’s strong showing in the Eastleigh by-election last week.
Farage has confirmed he did indeed dine with the media mogul at Murdoch’s London flat but has refused to give any clues about what was said. However, the Daily Telegraph writes he suggested he would form an electoral pact with the Conservatives if Cameron stepped down. Read more
I’ve updated this post at the bottom in light of this afternoon’s parliamentary debate on the issue.
As the Tories contemplate the fallout from coming third in the Eastleigh byelection, different ministers have been floating different ideas for recapturing the votes lost to Ukip. One such idea is banning newly-arrived migrants from accessing certain benefits and NHS services.
Polls suggest immigration is a major reason for voters choosing Ukip, and Conservatives worry that trend will only accelerate when limits on movement from Bulgaria and Romania to elsewhere in the EU are removed.
A cabinet sub-committee has been convened to look into the policy options, but in the face of EU rules forbidding discrimination between citizens of different European countries, is there anything they can do, or is this empty populist rhetoric? Read more
Jeremy Forrest, the teacher extradited from France last year
We revealed this morning that the first battle that Nick Clegg intends to pick in the coalition after his party’s victory in Eastleigh is over the European arrest warrant.
The EAW is one of a number of measures involved in the European crime and justice framework, which the Tories want to leave altogether. The prime minister has won plaudits among his own party for saying he would pull out of the 130 measures agreed among EU countries, but he needs the support of his coalition partners to do so, as it must go to a vote in the Commons.
Negotiations between the two parties are being led by Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin, and according to sources close to the talks, have pretty much broken down altogether. Read more
David Cameron’s European strategy hinges on the idea that he will be able to repatriate powers from Brussels to Westminster, before offering voters a choice between the new settlement and leaving the EU altogether in a referendum.
But the question that remains to be answered is exactly how much will other European countries be willing bend to Britain’s demands for such repatriation? Will the threat of Britain leaving be enough to persuade them to cooperate, or will they be so irritated by the way in which Cameron is going about his project that they happily wave goodbye to the UK?
In a speech this morning in Germany, the German president made it clear that he does not want to see the UK simply pack its bags and leave. Speaking from his Schloss Bellevue, his official residence, Joachim Gauck said: Read more
Boris Johnson and Maria Hutchings campaigning in Eastleigh
We are now just a week from the Eastleigh byelection and the likely result is starting to take shape.
The Lib Dems have emerged as the decisive favourites. They have run an impeccable campaign, from choosing a man who was the antithesis of Chris Huhne, to limiting the campaign to three weeks, preventing their rivals from getting their machinery properly off the ground.
For a full explanation of why the Lib Dem ground operation has been better than the Tory one, James Forsyth’s piece for the Spectator gives an excellent summary. Read more
Ed Miliband’s announcement that Labour backs a mansion tax on properties over £2m, with the money used to fund a new 10p rate of income tax, has left the two coalition parties scrambling to trump the opposition with their own progressive tax plans.
For the Lib Dems, this meant leaking a tax document* being prepared in advance of the party’s spring conference. The paper proposed extending the mansion tax from people’s first properties to apply also to additional properties and any other land they may own. It also suggested the more radical idea of taxing assets such as paintings, jewellery and even record and book collections – although this was quickly dismissed by Vince Cable.
The Tories offered their own response on Sunday evening, when Tory chairman Grant Shapps appeared on BBC 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics. Shapps told the programme the Tories were considering pushing the income tax allowance beyond the £10,000 level currently planned – something that could go into the party’s 2015 manifesto. Read more
After pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice, Chris Huhne made this statement outside the court:
Having taken responsibility for something that happened 10 years ago, the only proper course of action is for me to resign my Eastleigh seat in parliament.
Contrast that with the letters he sent to David Cameron and Nick Clegg at the time. To Clegg, his party leader and rival, he wrote:
I am writing to resign, with great regret, as Energy and Climate Change Secretary. I will defend myself robustly in the courts against the charges that the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to press. I have concluded that it would be distracting both to my trial defence and to my official duties if I were to continue in office as a minister….
This is what Clegg sent in return: Read more
Today’s exchanges at PMQs sounded fairly hackneyed and well-worn. Ed Miliband chose to ask about the economy, and the usual argument took place – the Labour leader accused the coalition of stifling growth, the prime minister said it was all Labour’s fault for borrowing too much.
But Miliband did give one revealing answer during the debate. The Labour leader pointed out:
[Cameron] is borrowing £212bn more than he promised.
Two big questions remained after David Cameron’s landmark speech on Britain’s role in Europe this morning: would it do enough to please his eurosceptic backbenchers, and how would Ed Miliband respond?
We got the answer to both at PMQs. We know now that for the moment, Cameron has got his party off his back, and that Labour are not about to promise a referendum of their own.
The atmosphere in the Commons was electric as the leaders took their places. The Tory benches were packed with grinning faces – this looked like being a good day for Cameron, and so it proved. He even got a cheer for starting his first answer by saying: Read more
Frans Timmermans, Dutch foreign minister
I’m not sure if anyone in Downing Street is fluent in Dutch, but if they are, they may want to watch the edition of Nieuwsuur (their equivalent of Newsnight) broadcast earlier this week.
Cameron is off to the Netherlands tomorrow to make his great make-or-break speech on Europe, where he’s expected to announce a renegotiation of powers followed by a referendum in the next parliament. He has chosen to do it there because he regards prime minister Mark Rutte as one of his great allies in the cause of reforming Brussels. Read more