UK politics

Jim Pickard

Greg Barker, the Tory energy minister – who posed with David Cameron in the Arctic eight years ago – is stepping down from the government in a vivid symbol of the Conservative party’s changing priorities.

Mr Barker, who as climate change minister was the number two in the energy department, is also set to quit politics altogether by stepping down as an MP next May. Read more

Maija Palmer

Will 16 and 17-year-olds, who have been given the right to vote on Scottish independence, have much influence on the final outcome?

For our panel these younger voters seem an unknown quantity. Those in favour of a Yes vote predict they will vote Yes, based on a concern for jobs and free university places. Those who favour a No vote say this group is likely to vote No, as they are too much of a global generation to be swayed by the nationalist argument. Read more

Jim Pickard

As phone hacking returns to the House of Commons three years after it rocked the political establishment, it seems a good time to recap the best moments – and worst – of Ed Miliband as Labour leader:

MILIBAND HIGH POINTS

Winning the leadership, September 2010

Miliband confounds the sceptics by riding a wave of support from trade union members to beat his brother, David, by the tightest of margins.

In front of a packed hall in Manchester, Ed Miliband struggles with his emotions as he pronounces his love for his elder brother, and says: “Today the work of the new generation begins.”

One Nation Speech, October 2012

Ed Miliband surprises on the upside as he delivers, without notes, a confident speech promising to build a “One Nation Britain” in the spirit of Disraeli.

In a speech that draws heavily on his own background, the Labour leader promises to block or reverse coalition policies on education and the health service, but warns he will have to keep many of the Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick Clegg in Eastleigh

Nick Clegg celebrates the Eastleigh byelection result

For well over a year, the Liberal Democrats have told supporters, commentators and their own MPs that they will fare better than their national poll ratings suggests.

At next year’s election, argue Nick Clegg’s strategists, the party will do well in areas they already have MPs, particularly given most of them are Tory-Lib Dem marginals, where the coalition of voters they have forged will stay with them for fear of letting the Tories in. This will let them retain about 40 of their 57 seats, think those at the top of the party, allowing for heavy losses to Labour in the north. Read more

Jim Pickard

Tax relief on pensions looks set to become a key battleground at next year’s general election with Labour and the Lib Dems both mulling a raid on well-off savers.

Steve Webb, the pensions minister, told us in an interview that he was optimistic that a cut in tax relief for higher-rate pensions would be in the Lib Dem manifesto.

Mr Webb said that the idea was gaining traction within the party leadership in the run-up to the manifesto being finalised later in the year.

Introducing a new system of flat-rate tax relief would penalise the well-off but could benefit many savers on lower incomes, giving them a greater incentive to save. “A significant majority of pension savers would get more tax relief, which seems like a good thing to me,” he said.

As such the policy would fit the Lib Dem narrative of helping low-income workers, having fought for several increases in the income tax threshold throughout the current Parliament.

Nick Clegg, the party leader, is understood to be sympathetic to Mr Webb’s idea, subject to further modelling work on the implications. “I’ve found the idea being increasingly well-received, both within and beyond the party,” said Mr Webb.

Labour has already promised to cut pension tax relief for those earning £150,000 from 45 per cent to 20 per cent.

Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, believes the move could raise £1.3bn a year, which Read more

Jim Pickard

Tonight is the annual speech by George Osborne to a City audience at Mansion House. We revealed this morning that the chancellor will set out plans to speed up development of disused industrial sites, in his latest attempt to stop housing shortages from holding back economic growth.

He will explain a package of planning reforms and state investment, worth hundreds of millions of pounds, to speed up housebuilding.

Osborne will roll out nationally a plan – proposed by Boris Johnson in London – for investing public money in cleaning up former industrial areas, in exchange for deals with developers and local authorities to guarantee speedy housebuilding. He will also set out planning reforms that could give an effective “presumption in favour of development” on brownfield sites.

But I’m told that the biggest surprise tonight may not be on the “supply” side but rather on the “demand side”.

Osborne, I’m told, still believes that there is no bubble in the London housing market, and that recent price rises are mainly a function of cash buyers and under-supply. Yet the coalition have been under pressure since Mark Carney warned in May that the housing Read more

Jim Pickard

Ed Miliband has been widely criticised for what critics claim is a plan to seize power with just 35 per cent of the vote.

The theory is that Miliband believes he can cobble together a “coalition” of core party voters alongside disaffected Lib Dems – giving him just votes to get into Downing Street. The maths is that Labour picked up about 29 per cent in 2010: add 6 per cent from Lib Dem defections and Miliband is home and dry.

Some Labour officials and MPs deny that this is the plan: others accept that it is the most realistic chance of power for the opposition party. (There is no shortage of left-ish policies to prove the theory.)

There is a dismissive tone to the idea of a “core strategy”. Commentators believe that it shows Miliband “turning his back on Middle England” and pursuing a policy platform advocated by the unions. Many Blairites are appalled by the idea, warning Read more

Kiran Stacey

One of the most frequent criticisms of the campaign against Scottish independence is that it can come across as high-handed and patronising. Number 10 has been particularly alert to the danger of southern Tories leading the campaign for exactly that reason. David Cameron said in January:

I humbly accept that while I am sure there are many people in Scotland who would like to hear me talk about this issue, my appeal doesn’t stretch to every single part.

Given that sensitivity, you might be surprised at the latest attempt by the UK government to appeal to Scots thinking of voting no. Read more

Jim Pickard

Ministers have been wrangling for years over how to introduce a new law allowing voters to kick out MPs who break the law.

But the final result has fallen far short of what was expected from some of its leading advocates, such as Tory MPs Zac Goldsmith and Douglas Carswell. It is not “Total Recall”, they say.

Mr Goldsmith said on Wednesday that the new law was “meaningless” – and vowed to work with Labour to amend the legislation.

Under the Recall of MPs Bill, constituents will be able to sack their MP if they are sentenced to up to 12 months in jail. Alternatively, they could trigger a by-election if the Commons’ authorities (usually the Standards and Privileges Committee) decides there has been “serious wrongdoing” by a Right Hon. Member. A by-election would then occur if 10 per cent of constituents signed a Read more

Maija Palmer

Is the referendum debate causing a rift in Scottish society? The Church of Scotland is worried enough about this to propose a service of reconciliation following the vote in September. We put the question to our panelists – were their personal relationships strained? Were they worried about life after September 18?

Most of them said no – Scots are grown up enough to have the debate without lasting damage. But interestingly, our pro-Union panelists were the ones most clearly voicing fears about a divide. Read more

Jim Pickard

Danny Alexander is in a cheerful mood this morning, hailing a “jobs-rich recovery” on the back of fresh employment data. The figures “leave Labour’s economic narrative in tatters”, says the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury.

Certainly, earnings are nudging ahead of inflation for the first time in six years – if you ignore a bonus-related blip in 2010.

(Average earnings rose 1.7 per cent in the three months to March on a year earlier, nudging ahead of March’s 1.6 per cent consumer price inflation rate.)

If that trend continues it could seriously wound Labour’s “Cost of Living” narrative.

Although – and this is a major caveat – the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that real incomes will not return to their 2009-10 levels until 2018 at the earliest.

Employment soared by nearly a third of a million in only a quarter, the biggest three-month jump in over 40 years.

(Employment continued to rise rapidly, up by 283,000 to a record 30.43m in the three months to March compared with the previous quarter, the biggest quarterly increase since records began in 1971.)

Expect to hear lots of noise about this from David Cameron at PMQs later today.

And yet, the labour market is still not quite as wholesome as coalition ministers would like to suggest.

Today’s figures show a further drop in youth unemployment by 48,000, taking it to its lowest level since 2008. And yet young people are Read more

Kiran Stacey

Four polls have been published in the last 24 hours, all suggesting the same thing: the race for next year’s general election is now neck and neck.

Of course it is a symbolic moment that two of these polls show the Tories two points ahead – they are the first polls to put the governing party in the lead since early 2012. But within the margin of error, the race is essentially tied.

So what has happened in the last few days and weeks to cause Labour to slip from a pretty steady five point lead?

Unfortunately, the Lord Ashcroft poll can’t tell us, as it is the first in a series and so has no previous survey against which we can accurately monitor trends. Even more frustratingly, the ICM and the Populus polls seem to suggest very differing reasons for the poll move. Read more