Alistair Darling

Jim Pickard

To what extent was Stephen Byers exaggerating or even fantasising when he claimed that he was able to influence the process by which National Express exited a loss-making East coast rail franchise?

That is certainly the current view of Byers himself, who – perhaps after realising he had been the victim of a journalistic sting – retracted his claims. Hilariously, he has “regretted that my misleading comments might be taken seriously”.

Originally Byers, a former transport secretary (the picture is old but I love the moustache) told the fake lobbyist that he had enabled National Express to negotiate favourable terms in jettisoning the franchise without penalties.

The problem with his self-promoting claim is that the contract ended last year with the loss of £72m to the transport company, in the form of a £32m performance bond and a £40m loan which it walked away from. Read more

Jim Pickard

Lord Mandelson hinted yesterday that taxes could have to go up in the next Parliament. It’s taken a little while for anyone in Labour to even mention the possibility. Two thoughts spring to mind.

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Jim Pickard

Mea culpa. I missed the most interesting angle on the Stalybridge and Hyde selection yesterday; the exclusion of James Purnell’s anointed successor, Johnny Reynolds. He is now back on the shortlist after an intervention by both Purnell and Lord Mandelson.

Mandelson’s action re-opened the shortlist. Or so Tom Watson (who is heavily involved in the selection procedure) has said in a statement to The Times, adding, curtly: “I know of no rule that allows for an appeal once the panel has decided the shortlist.” Another rejected candidate, Glyn Ford – ironically from Unite – is now also seeking an appeal. Read more

Jim Pickard

Before lunch I attended an amusing Tory event designed to reinforce the impression that Labour has reverted to Old Labour. Theresa Villiers, Eric Pickles and Michael Gove were our hosts – ironically at Transport House, former home of the T&G.

Some of the language was delightfully ripe, with Gove suggesting that Charlie Whelan had “unleashed the forces of hell” on families wanting to fly abroad over Easter. “I would never go as far as calling Charlie Whelan an ‘aggressive hooligan’, ‘serial killer*‘ or ‘killing machine’ – but then, civil servants and senior Labour figures have already said that,” said the shadow education spokesman. He also described a “second Mesozoic era, with a succession of dinosaurs trooping through Downing Street.”

But does Gove’s main premise stack up? Read more

Jim Pickard

It’s like the French revolution revisited: not.

MPs have just voted by 206 to 90 votes to alter the terminology which describes the person who heads a select committee: after a two-hour debate on the Chair (Terminology) issue.

To be fair, MPs will now vote on a handful of other less trivial motions including letting MPs elect the chairs of their select committees – thus reducing the power of the whips. Even so, how much does the public really care?

Here are the main reforms which backbenchers are holding up as a small but important victory: Read more

Jim Pickard

Jack Straw has just told the House of Commons that the former Labour leader has died at the age of 96. Read more

Jim Pickard

Those who erupted in shock yesterday at the news that Andrew Mackay had landed a job with Burson-Marsteller will no doubt be outraged* by my latest intel.

I’m informed reliably that Julie Kirkbride, Mackay’s wife, has been chatting to several lobbying firms in the last month or so about work post-election. I’m told she is aiming for an annual salary of about £100,000 with flexible working patterns to fit around school holidays. Not certain exactly which firms she has been talking to as yet. Read more

Jim Pickard

It was all just a dream.

You may have thought that the Tories were the party of fiscal probity. You may have thought that they were the ones who were going to get a grip on Britain’s desperate public finances. They were the ones who would prevent the loss of the UK’s AAA credit rating and keep interest rates low. Etc, etc, etc. Read more

Jim Pickard

When David Cameron yesterday said there would be no “swingeing cuts” in the first year of a Tory government was it proof that he is in retreat over the issue? Read more

Jim Pickard

I’m not officially working today (am at home, in recovery from gastric flu). But I’ve just been passed something so fascinating I couldn’t help passing it on.

You may not remember but something called the “Homeowner Mortgage Support Scheme” was one of the flagship ideas in Gordon Brown’s Queen’s Speech in 2008. (Even Alex and I were quite excited at the time.) The idea was to help people defer mortgage interest for up to two years if they were struggling with payments. The scheme took ages to set up and – even when it was finally announced this spring – only half of lenders fully signed up to it. Even so, the government presented it as a major victory against repossession. Read more

There is some furious tax planning afoot at the Treasury. The goal: a one-off levy on bankers that will limit the political damage from that champaigne-guzzling, Porsche-buying, loads-a-money bonus pay-out moment.

It will attempt to placate the baying mob rather than pay down the deficit. But in order for this to work, bankers need to feel the pinch. Announcing a clampdown that includes a big loophole will be a PR disaster for Alistair Darling. Read more

Jim Pickard

If you haven’t seen today’s BBC interview with Lord Myners it’s worth a look.

The guidance I was getting yesterday from a Treasury source was that the government realised that banks needed to pay competitive salaries to their staff (a line echoed by Lord Mandelson today). And it would thus be wrong to crack down too hard on bonuses. Read more

Jim Pickard

So many numbers are flying around that you might not have spotted today’s real news on RBS. Read more

Jim Pickard

Okay, it’s not the same Fred Goodwin. This one works as an analyst at Nomura, apparently.

But the Tories have seized upon Goodwin’s report which suggests “the prospect of a UK fiscal crisis is a clear and present danger”. The report suggests that a fiscal crisis is “far more likely” in the UK than in the US – because the dollar is a reserve currency. Read more

Jim Pickard

A brief passage in George Osborne’s last Andrew Marr interview stands out: In it, the shadow chancellor heaps praise at the feet of the world’s central banks for preventing financial meltdown.

“But we say the most effective form of stimulus is monetary policy, is the low interest rates, which both here and around the world I think have been the most effective tool at bringing the world back from the brink of depression.” Read more

Jim Pickard

Lord Myners gives short thrift today to Tory plans to kneecap the Financial Services Authority and transfer many of its powers to the Bank of England. Read more

Jim Pickard

Attempts to clean up the financial system have become more urgent given reports of the banking world returning to normal. Read more

Jim Pickard

Gordon Brown’s sums are skewered by Chris Giles, FT economics editor

The organogram of (imminent) power: a map of David Cameron’s inner circle Read more

Jim Pickard

You would have thought that the prime minister would now have his public sector spending numbers at his fingertips – given that David Cameron has made the issue his focal point for three sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions in succession. Read more

Jim Pickard

The charge against Gordon Brown is that his promise of future investment – instead of cuts – is cloud cuckoo land given the grim public finances. You may think this unfair.

But here is the verdict of the governor of the Bank of England today when asked about the national deficit: Read more