Nick Clegg

Kiran Stacey

Members of the House of LordsAfter weeks of shadow boxing, ministers are finally publishing their proposals on reforming the House of Lords today. They include an 80 per cent elected chamber, filled with 450 part-time “senators”, elected by regional list.

Tory backbenchers are already up in arms, threatening rebellion and, in the case of some ministerial aides, resignation. Conor Burns, PPS to Owen Paterson, said this morning:

If I lose my job for something that was a mainstream view within the Conservative party within the last parliament, which serving cabinet ministers held as their view, so be it.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

Vince Cable has reignited one of the questions that has dogged the coalition since it formed: when will it split up? Talking to BBC 5 Live’s John Pienaar, the business secretary said:

Everybody involved knows that before the next general election the two parties will have to establish their own separate platforms and identity.

But how that disengagement takes place, over what time period is very much an issue for the future, certainly not something we’re talking about at the moment.

The question is, what exactly does Cable mean by “disengagement”? Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg hit the campaign trail for the last time yesterday, jetting to Edinburgh (where the party could lose half its seats), then down to Stockport (where it could lose control), and then catching the train over to his constituency home in Sheffield.

It’s a grinding schedule, especially as the Lib Dems prepare for another year of heavy local government losses as they continue to suffer for their decision to join the Tories in government. The party could end up losing councils across the country: Cardiff, Stockport, Burnley, Cheltenham, and in other places it could be wiped out altogether.

You might expect Clegg to be jaded, especially as he visits places he’s expected to lose. But if the Lib Dem leader was tired, he didn’t show it. Far from it, as he turned on the charm for voters in a chip shop on a grey suburban shopping precinct in Stockport, it became clear why voters had taken to him so enthusiastically in 2010Read more

Jim Pickard

Lords reform is widely seen as a hobbyhorse of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats –yet it is a Tory minister whose task is to push through the legislation to transform parliament’s upper house.

Indeed, aides to Mr Clegg have jokingly referred to it as “the Mark Harper bill” in their attempts to downplay the idea that the deputy prime minister is obsessedby removing the unelected peers.

Mr Harper has a delicate task in front of him; steering through a full shake-up of the Lords which has evaded other politicians for a century.

A press officer warns the FT that the minister keeps his office at a low temperature: but this habit may not prepare him for the frosty reception he will face in parliament during next year’s legislative marathon.

Peers and MPs of all parties have already lined up to oppose the bill. Even if it passes through the Commons without mishap it is likely to be ambushed by the combined forces of Tory, Labour, and even some Lib Dem peers.

There could be a repeat of the filibustering and all-night sittings dominated the Lords in the spring of 2011 over the alternative vote bill.

Nick Clegg has threatened to use the Parliament Act to force it through, but weeks of debate are expected, taking up large amounts of next year’s political calendar.

Mr Harper tells the FT that bill should not take up a “disproportionate” amount of time: but warns potential trouble-makers:

I don’t think the public would understand if people told the public they don’t care hugely about this legislation but then let it (in-fighting) damage the rest of the programme,” he says.

Even David Cameron once said he saw Lords reform as a “third term issue”, implying it was a very low priority. But Mr Harper says the prime minister is fully signed up to the Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg has hit back at claims by David Cameron that he had signed up to plans to extend surveillance by the security services into social media messages and Skype calls.

The PM told hacks travelling on the plane with him to Japan:

You’ve got to remember that this was a national security council where sitting round the table was Chris Huhne, Nick Clegg, Ken Clarke – people from impeccable civil libertarian backgrounds.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

The quad - David Cameron, Danny Alexander, George Osborne, Nick Clegg

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, told me yesterday:

I suspect that we are going to see a Budget which has got more Liberal Democrat stuff in it than Tory. The amount of money being returned to individuals will go overwhelmingly to middle and lower income earners.

He’s right, to the extent that by far the biggest spending measure announced by George Osborne tomorrow will be the increase in the personal tax allowance to around £9,000 – a move likely to cost around £3.3bn. Read more

Kiran Stacey

The Lib Dems have made raising the personal tax allowance (what you can get paid without paying income tax) one of their flagship policies. So when George Osborne says at the Budget in two days’ time that he will raise that allowance beyond inflation, it should be a major victory for the junior coalition party.

It is interesting therefore, to take note of a piece of research published today by CentreForum, a think tank with close ties to the Lib Dems, showing that raising the tax threshold* to £10,000 (the eventual aim), would not be especially progressive. It fares especially badly when compared to an alternative proposal, to lift tax credits instead, which would cost the same amount of money.

The think tank produced the following table detailing who benefits from either move, which paints the difference in stark terms: Read more

Kiran Stacey

The most interesting thing about today’s session of prime minister’s questions was not the contest between Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman (although Harman was, as always, an impressive stand-in, and Clegg did better than he previously has), but the reaction of Tory backbenchers, who were given their chance to put the deputy PM on the spot.

Clegg always struggles a bit in PMQs, partly through no fault of his own – his parliamentary party is simply not big enough to give him loud support against the heckles of Labour and the silence of many of the Tories who enjoy seeing him squirm.

But things were even worse today. Not only did his coalition colleagues fail to lend him their vocal support, but several of them openly tried to attack or embarrass him. Read more

Kiran Stacey

House of LordsThe comments by Lord Lee in today’s FT are quite extraordinary. The Lib Dem peer opposes the coalition’s plan to reform the House of Lords to such an extent that he has threatened to quit his role as a Lords whip if it pushes ahead. He said:

There is absolutely no public demand for this at all, and pretty much zero support from serious political commentators.

He added that the coalition faced a “long, bitter and bloody battle” if it pressed ahead.

Lord Lee is not alone: we have now learned that 14 Lib Dem peers wrote a letter last year to the party leader outlining their opposition to his plans for an 80 per cent elected chamber.

In the letter, the 14 said:

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

Protests against Tesco's work experience schemeIain Duncan Smith was once more on the attack this morning against critics of the government’s work experience scheme, under which young people are told to sign up to a four-week placement at one of a range of businesses or lose their benefits.

The scheme has been controversial for two reasons. One is that it meant young people who were claiming benefits while looking for a job were not able to do work experience in their own chosen field; instead they had to go on a government-mandated scheme at a company such as Boots, McDonald’s, Argos, Tesco or Primark. The second is it meant some of the countries’ biggest companies profiting from free labour, which is why one activist referred to it this morning as “slavery”.

Writing in the Daily Mail, the work and pensions secretary has dismissed such criticisms however, saying:

Armed with an unjustified sense of superiority and sporting an intellectual sneer, we find a commentating elite which seems determined to belittle and downgrade any opportunity for young people that doesn’t fit their pre-conceived notion of a ‘worthwhile job’.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

The Liberal Democrats have a problem. They have staked their colours clearly to the mast when it comes to raising the minimum threshold for income tax to £10,000. Most expect it to be done by the end of the parliament, if not by 2014.

The problem is, this will cost money – £4bn if it’s done by 2015, £5.5bn if it’s done by 2014 – and there isn’t much of it floating around. Lib Dems will tell you they are keen on two options to pay for this: one is to clamp down on tax avoidance; the other is to tax the pension contributions made by higher earners.

Both options are likely to make some kind of appearance in the Budget in March. But it is the latter that raises the serious money, and carries potentially serious risks for the coalition. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Chris Huhne has written to both the prime minister and deputy prime minister offering his resignation. The exchange with Cameron is in a separate post. Here are the letters between the former energy secretary and Nick Clegg, the man he once challenged for the party leadership:

Dear Nick,

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.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

Chris Huhne

UPDATE: The results are in, and, as widely predicted, Ed Davey has been promoted to energy secretary, with Norman Lamb coming into the business department. Jenny Willott has been made an assistant whip, while Jo Swinson is now Nick Clegg’s PPS. I’ll leave the rest of the post unchanged so you can judge for yourselves who right I was…

Chris Huhne has resigned as energy secretary after being told he will be charged with perverting the course of justice following allegations he asked his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, to accept speeding points on his behalf.

This means that David Cameron, famously reluctant to reshuffle his ministers, will now be forced into his second reshuffle of the last three months. As with the last one, in which Liam Fox was replaced by Philip Hammond, this one is expected to be fairly limited, with only Liberal Democrats moving. So here are the runners and riders:

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

House of LordsMany commentators have been asking why the Liberal Democrats are still in the coalition, given they have now lost major battles on tuition fees, electoral reform and Europe.

Philip Stephens, writing in today’s FT, suggests:

With trust gone, the coalition is now much more a transactional affair. Anything beyond the shared goal of reducing the deficit is the subject of intense negotiation.

Clegg, when asked today in the Commons, said that the main reason to form the coalition, and to stay in it now, was to bring down the deficit. But if there is one issue that might seem distinctively Lib Dem, and on which Clegg might be able to score a victory, not least to placate his own backbenches, it is on reforming the House of Lords. Read more

Kiran Stacey

I wrote a few weeks ago that the number one priority of those at the heart of the coalition, and especially those close to Nick Clegg, was not to have a referendum on Europe. But there are people on his side who think the Lib Dem leader should effectively call the Eurosceptics’ bluff and back a referendum, not just on any new European treaty, but on the UK’s very membership of the union. It is an argument even Clegg used to advance.

Philip Stephens, the FT’s chief political commentator, made this call a few weeks ago in a provocative column (at least for a europhile) entitled Britain’s eurosceptics are right to call for a referendum. In it he argued:

Barring a euro break-up, Britain and its partners are now set on different courses. At some point the divergence will become unsustainable. The Tory sceptics may be right after all. There is a case for an in-or-out referendum. My guess is the sceptics would be sorely disappointed by the outcome. The voters are realists. Much as Brussels may irritate them, they know there is nothing splendid about isolation.

Now YouGov have done some polling that seems to back up Stephens’ conclusions, especially about the outcome of such a referendum. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Ed Miliband started well at today’s PMQs, using David Cameron’s words from his 2011 New Year message to highlight the government’s failure to stop the rise in unemployment, which has hit a new 17-year high.

Miliband quotes the PM as saying: “What is uppermost in my mind is jobs,” before asking, “What went wrong?”

There then followed such a well-worn debate (“Unemployment is rising,” says Labour; “Here’s what we’re doing to tackle it,” say the Tories) that half the press gallery fell asleep during it. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg with Herman Van Rompuy

Nick Clegg with Herman Van Rompuy

Nick Clegg’s advisers like to call him the “Heineken” of British politics, because he reaches the parts of Europe that other British politicians can’t reach. Clegg, who trained at the College of Europe, learned at the feet of Leon Brittan, the famously pro-European Tory, became an MEP and speaks to leaders across Europe in their own languages, is ideally placed to try and win back some goodwill for the UK among European leaders.

And that is what he will try and do over the next few weeks and months. He told cabinet this morning that he now wants to focus on how to re-engage with Europe after David Cameron’s treaty veto, which has clearly angered many on the continent. Vince Cable specifically raised the issue of business fears about being cut adrift.

Tomorrow, the Lib Dem leader will host a series of meetings with business leaders  to try to soothe any worries they have on the UK becoming isolated from the rest of Europe, and to ask their views on Europe more generally. He will also attend a business breakfast arranged by Business for New Europe, a pro-EU group of corporate representatives. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Douglas Alexander has written a piece for the New Statesman trying to prise open the cracks in the coalition over Europe.

In the run up to this afternoon’s debate on the EU, during which Ed Miliband is expected to paint Cameron as isolated both at home and abroad, the shadow foreign secretary has invited the Lib Dems to work with Labour to get the UK back into the heart of Europe.

He writes:

The roots of what happened on the night of Thursday 8 December lie deep in Cameron’s failure to modernise the Tory party. Just because he puts party interest before the national interest, there is no reason others should do the same. That is why I make a genuine offer to Liberal Democrats to work with us to try to get a better outcome for Britain, between now and when this agreement is likely to be finally tied down in March. Work can and should start immediately both to win back friends and allies and to consider what rules and procedures can avoid Britain’s further marginalisation.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nicolas Sarkozy avoids shaking David Cameron's hand

Nicolas Sarkozy avoids shaking David Cameron's hand

So Britain has isolated itself in Europe by refusing to sign up to a deal to save the eurozone because other countries refused to give the UK specific safeguards to protect the single market and the City of London. Tory backbenchers are delighted, but what does the pro-European Lib Dem half of the coalition make of it?

Anyone expecting a massive bust up at the heart of the coalition will have been dismayed to read Nick Clegg’s statement this morning. The deputy prime minister said:

The demands Britain made for safeguards, on which the Coalition Government was united, were modest and reasonable. They were safeguards for the single market, not just the UK.

What we sought to ensure was to maintain a level playing field in financial services and the single market as a whole. This would have retained the UK’s ability to take tougher, not looser, regulatory action to sort out our banking system.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

A British protester burns an EU flag

A British protester burns an EU flag

Two sources who would know have told members of our political team that the chances of having a referendum on EU membership this parliament are very low indeed.

One ruled it out altogether, the other said the “number one priority” of coalition policy on Europe was  not to have one.

David Cameron pretty much guaranteed that today when he said there would only be a referendum “if a new treaty passes powers from UK to Brussels” adding:

 

As Prime Minister, I do not think the issue will arise.

 Read more