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

John Aglionby

Ian Read, chairman and chief executive of US pharmaceuticals company Pfizer; Pascal Soriot, chief executive of its British rival AstraZeneca; and Vince Cable, the UK business secretary, are answering questions from MPs on the business, innovation and skills select committee on Pfizer’s proposed £63bn takeover of AstraZeneca. Union leaders are also appearing.

By John Aglionby and Hannah Kuchler

 

Kiran Stacey

Nigel Farage in Scotland

Nigel Farage in Scotland last year

Nigel Farage is in Edinburgh today, trying to improve his party’s reputation north of the border.

He is unlikely to receive a warm reception, even if it doesn’t go as badly as last time, when he was forced (!) to barricade himself in a pub when surrounded by dozens of anti-Ukip protesters telling him to “Go home to England.” Read more

Jim Pickard

It is the Lib Dems who complain most vociferously about Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system.

If Britain had PR (proportional representation) the yellow party would have had 150 MPs in the current Parliament. Instead, they picked up 57 seats.

That may explain why Lib Dems are apostles of electoral reform.

But in 2015 they may appear beneficiaries of the voting system – at least in comparison with Ukip.

That is because most experts predict that the LibDem vote will hold firm in their strongholds such as Colchester, Eastleigh or Twickenham, where they retain a decent ground presence. Senior figures still expect to hold at least 40 seats, even if the party’s share of the vote was to halve from its previous showing of 23 per cent. Read more

Maija Palmer

The FT has already written more than 800 articles referencing the Scottish independence referendum – and there are still five months of campaigning and debate to go. But what are the Scots themselves saying?

From more than 280 applicants we have selected a group of seven Scottish readers to give us their views as the campaign develops. Two support independence, two would like Scotland to remain part of the UK, and three have yet to make up their minds. Read more

Kiran Stacey

The Sunday Times’ front page this weekend will have surprised many people who are watching the Scottish referendum campaign with interest. The paper reported a new poll by Panelbase showing a bump for the independence campaign. Their headline read: Read more

Maija Palmer

Kiran Stacey

With two months to go until the European elections, the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party went head-to-head tonight in a live televised debate on the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU. This was the FT’s live coverage. By Kiran Stacey

20.50 Well there we have it. A clear win for Nigel Farage in the first Europe debate, if not necessarily for those who want the UK to leave the EU. Both sides will try to claim victory in the coming days though – and the real test will come on May 22 at the European elections. Read more

John Aglionby

Steady as she goes is the underlying message George Osborne is presenting in his fifth budget as he stresses there can be no let-up in the government’s austerity drive, despite the accelerating economic recovery.

By John Aglionby, Lina Saigol and Jonathan Eley

 

Jim Pickard

When George Osborne stands up tomorrow he hopes to convince business that the coalition is doing all it can to help industry.

One of the biggest measures the chancellor is expected to set out is a freeze in a tax on fossil fuels called the “carbon price floor”. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Stanley Johnson

The comments of Stanley Johnson about the Tory leadership prospects of his son Boris in this morning’s papers have made something of a stir. The London mayor’s father was quoted in the FT and the Guardian saying the Tories should change their leadership rules to allow Boris to run even if he wasn’t an MP at the time, a proposal that has been attacked by many in the party.

But it is Stanley’s comments on Boris’ views on Europe that might have a more long-term effect on his son’s leadership credentials. He told an audience of pro-European Tories (of which he is one):

Boris is a very good European, I can tell you that.

 Read more

Our readers have shared their views on Tony Benn, the former MP and champion of the UK left, who died on Friday aged 88. We received many thoughtful comments about the politician famed for his staunch belief in socialism, and have shared some of them below:

Tony Benn Read more

Jim Pickard

This interview with Tony Benn was never published by Weekend FT:

Former MP Tony Benn smokes his pipe outside the Palace of Westminster, London, Tuesday 18 March, 2003, during the debate in the House of Commons on the possibility of war aganist Iraq. See PA story POLITICS Iraq. PA Photo: Matthew Fearn

Tony Benn has not been chatting for long when my right hand begins to ache and I regret leaving my dictaphone at home.

The 83-year old has led the conversation through the Iraq War, training as a pilot in Rhodesia, Alan Greenspan, John Bolton and Herbert Asquith.

We have only been going for ten minutes or so. A cup of tea, balanced on a wooden stand in the corner of Benn’s living room, remains untouched as I scribble away.

Mr Benn has agreed to meet for a “Lunch with the FT” interview but asked do it at his house over tea rather than a restaurant.

The note pad on my lap is filling with reams of scrawled shorthand as my pen struggles to keep pace with Benn’s fruity vowels.

The voice, reminiscent of 1940s broadcasters, is one trademark of this most reknown of British politicians. Another is his pipe, from which he emits streams of tobacco smoke in my direction.

Some would say that Benn, former flag-bearer for the left-wing, has never stopped fighting a series of lost causes – from unilateral nuclear disarmament to the nationalisation of British industry.

Even now he is at it again, writing to all MPs urging them to vote for a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. It probably won’t happen, but that’s not the point. Benn opposed the UK’s Common Market membership in the 1975 referendum and will not give up the fight.

The man’s energy is impressive. On the day we meet he is due to attend a meeting of the Stop the War Coalition, of which he is president, ahead of a demonstration at the weekend. He is meanwhile putting together a guest speech to the Scottish Parliament.

He is a natural orator. The opinions come spilling out, sometimes in an ordered fashion, at other times in a jumble of inter-connected thoughts.

Carbon trading? Dreadful idea. The troops in Afghanistan? They should all be called back, like Prince Harry. Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama? Definitely Obama.

Not that Benn is entirely self-centred. Most interviewees, especially politicians, show little more than a cursory interest in the person they are talking to. Why bother, if you might never see the journalist again?

By contrast, he has done his homework on Google: “I see you worked at the Western Daily Press in the 90s,” he beams as I arrive at the door of his house on Holland Park Avenue, in one of London’s most expensive areas.

Later, he comments: “I saw that you won a prize last year?” I know I shouldn’t succumb to this flattery but the effect is disarming.

He offers tea or coffee, shows me into a living room filled with old furniture and paraphernalia – ranging from a Toby jug in his image to old miners’ lamps – and swiftly appears with a tray of hot drinks. His hands tremble as he pours my tea.

There are busts of Keir Hardie and Karl Marx, a mug (”Labour and Proud of It”) and a piano which he cannot play. “It’s a bit of a museum,” he says, faux-apologetically.

I lean back in my chair to avoid the fug of smoke and ponder Benn’s status as a political hero to the most unlikely of people.

Previously I had sieved through Benn’s press cuts. Recent profiles had all been glowing, Read more

Kiran Stacey

Ed Miliband’s op-ed for the FT today on Europe has finally crystallised what each of the parties’ European position will be going into next year’s election. But anyone listening to Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary on the Today programme this morning would be forgiven for not understanding exactly what Labour’s position is. This is what he said:

The next Labour government will legislate for a lock that guarantees there cannot be a transfer of power from Britain to the European Union in the future without that in/out referendum. It’s an agenda for reform in Europe, not immediate exit from Europe.

So what does this mean, and how does it compare to the other two parties? Read more

Jim Pickard

The massive industrial dispute at Grangemouth refinery in Scotland last autumn prompted David Cameron to launch an inquiry into trade union tactics.

The prime minister said he had appointed Bruce Carr, an eminent QC – and industrial relations expert – to look into whether the law needed to be tightened up to prevent “harassment” and “intimidation” by union officials.

That move came after claims that a “mob” of Unite staff had gone to the house of a manager at the Ineos-owned Grangemouth refinery during the height of the dispute.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, insisted the inquiry was not politically motivated, arguing that such tactics had no place in industrial relations.

Protest should not be allowed to develop “into intimidation and clearly inappropriate activity,” with managers cast as “the enemy“, Mr Maude said.

Yet Vince Cable strikingly argued at the time that the inquiry should look at malpractice by unions – but also by employers, for example in the blacklisting scandal.

Nick Clegg, Lib Dem deputy prime minister, also insisted that the inquiry should examine “irresponsible business practices” as well as union misdemeanors.

Fast-forward four months and little appears to have happened with the inquiry, despite Read more

Kiran Stacey

For many years, and most noticeably during the tenure of Tony Blair, the UK used to pride itself on acting as a bridge between its partners in the EU and the US.

In the run up to today’s European summit in Brussels, it looked like David Cameron was trying to play the same role. The prime minister struck a powerful note this morning as he entered the Justus Lipsius building, telling journalists he would be there in Ukraine’s “hour of need”, adding:

This matters to people in Britain because we benefit from a world in which countries obey the rules and we also benefit when we enable people like those in Ukraine being able to choose their own future.

 Read more

Kiran Stacey

Pro-Russian troops in Crimea

Pro-Russian troops in Crimea

As MPs return to Westminster after a tumultuous weekend in Ukraine, recriminations are flying around parliament over who is to blame for allowing Putin to deploy his military forces in Crimea.

For some Tory MPs, the person most at fault is Ed Miliband. By leading his MPs in voting against action in Syria (which would also have meant taking on Russia), he made any western military threat we could issue impotent, they argue. Here, for example, is Sajid Javid, the Treasury minister: Read more

Jim Pickard

It was not long ago that a senior figure in the Miliband camp was claiming that the Labour leader had never described his funding reforms as a Clause 4 moment.

“Why would he? Clause 4 was about Labour’s aims and values,” that person told the FT. “This is about how we organise, how we relate to people outside the political elite and how we finance ourselves. Clause 4 did not cost us a penny. This will.”

That was two weeks ago.

Now, by contrast, Miliband is saying that the changes will be “bigger than Clause Four in its impact on the way it will change politics.”

The jury is still out on what the long-term impact of the reforms will be. No one could possibly argue that the system is not a move towards greater democracy in the way that some decisions (but not all*) are taken inside Labour.

Yet, as I’ve previously explained, there is one scenario where the union barons have greater power than before in their ability to dispense cash to Labour – or withhold it: eventually.

One thing which people have not quite twigged yet, meanwhile, is the impact of the changes in the short-term. Read more

Jim Pickard

There is a fascinating piece in the Times today looking at how many of the seats hit by flooding are marginal constituencies. It concludes that a disproportionate number of marginals have been affected, in particular Lib/Tory two-ways in the southwest.

Of the 40 most marginal seats held by the Tories, 15 have been hit by flooding, writes deputy political editor Sam Coates. Of the 20 most marginal LibDem seats, 12 have been flooded. By contrast hardly any vulnerable Labour areas have been hurt by the recent weather. Read more

George Osborne in EdinburghWe’ve known for two days that George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls were about to rule out sharing the pound with an independent Scotland. What we didn’t know until this morning is that they would be joined by Sir Nick Macpherson, the Treasury’s top civil servant, who has written a letter the likes of which are almost never seen in Whitehall.

Belying the reputation of civil servants as cautious, apolitical, and perhaps occasionally slightly verbose types, Sir Nick has written a short, punchy and withering assessment of Scotland’s chances of forming a currency union with the rest of the UK.

In it he says: Read more