The Andy Coulson phone hacking affair is in danger of descending into a political slanging match, when it is actually much more important than that. It is about press practices, the rule of law, personal privacy – not just the Coulson’s future as David Cameron chief spinner.
These are all issues one might expect Liberal Democrats to get excited about. But the party bigwigs have been silent on the matter – a far cry from before the election, when Chris Huhne said:
Andy Coulson’s defence is that he did not know what was going on despite the mounting evidence that his newsroom was widely using illegal phone hacking. Either he was complicit in crime, or he was one of the most incompetent Fleet Street editors of modern times. Neither should be a top recommendation to David Cameron.
In the run-up to the general election George Osborne scored a big propaganda coup by enlisting the names of scores of business leaders in a letter criticising Gordon Brown’s planned rise in National Insurance.
(No matter that in Osborne’s subsequent Budget VAT went up by a similar amount to help plug the fiscal hole).
For Labour that stung; not least because some of the figures had sat at various times on its own advisory boards. David Miliband has since said, on several occasions, that he never wants Labour to enter a general election campaign with no business support.
Nick Clegg exposed a serious faultline within the coalition earlier today as he said that the “huge, huge” sums needed to replace the Trident nuclear weapon would make it harder for ministers to explain cuts in welfare and other areas.
The £20bn cost of fully replacing the ageing submarine-based weapon has already prompted a spat between Liam Fox, defence secretary, and George Osborne, chancellor, over which department should carry its cost in the coming years.
It is hard to know sometimes whether Simon Hughes is playing a fiendishly complex strategic game in order to leverage anti-Tory forces within his own Liberal Democrat party and thus enhance his own reputation. Or whether he just can’t resist saying controversial things.
So it was with the VAT rise. Tuition fees. And with council housing. And now Mr Hughes (deputy leader the Lib Dems) is insisting that there will be no electoral pact between his party and the Tories come the next general election. (This is in contrast to Tories such as backbencher Mark Field, who has proposed a non-aggression agreement).
Labour is in something of a dilemma about how to deal with the Lib Dems. On the one hand, it is an easy attack to claim they betrayed their voters by doing a deal with the Tories and to portray the party as patsies for the real party of government. After all, some of their own have said the same thing.
But Ed Balls, among others, has warned the party not to get sidetracked by attacking Lib Dems and moving the focus away from the Tories. And party leaders have realised that a Lib Dem collapse in the next election just makes a Tory majority more likely.
That dichotomy is summed up in Labour’s attitude to Vince Cable in particular. Adrian Bailey has told me he regards it as part of his role as chairman of the business select committee to “reinforce” Cable, especially in his attitude to manufacturing. He says he thinks Cable is being undermined by other departments and worries that the Tories are not showing him enough political support.
The fledgling “yes” campaign for AV says it is too early to make premature judgments. The Electoral Reform Society, for example, says that polls will inevitably jump around given that the formal campaigns have not yet started. The referendum is not until May – and could even be in September if rebel Tory MPs and Labour MPs unite to amend the relevant bill.
But our analysis for today’s FT shows that the yes campaign was ahead by 28 points in May (according to ComRes) and as little as 1 point ahead in recent weeks (says YouGov). It may not be a co-incidence that support has dwindled just as backing for the Lib Dems (the main proponents of electoral reform) has also fallen sharply.
You might have thought that David Cameron would be steering clear of foreign policy gaffes after his “news-rich” visit to Turkey and India*.
But he has just been accused by Labour of making a new blunder by mistakenly claiming that Iran has a nuclear weapon (at least, we are still assuming he’s wrong) during a PM Direct meeting.
The prime minister was asked why he was backing Turkey to join the EU and said it could help solve the world’s problems….”like the Middle East peace process, like the fact that Iran has got a nuclear weapon”.
Chris Bryant, shadow Europe minister, said Mr Cameron was becoming a “foreign policy klutz”.
“This is less of a hiccup, more of a dangerous habit,” he said. “Considering Iran’s nuclear ambitions constitute one of the most important foreign policy challenges facing us all, it is not just downright embarrassing that the prime minister has made this basic mistake, it’s dangerous.”
Eric Pickles, communities secretary, says today that his plan for council tax will be a “radical extension of direct democracy” which will “let the people decide“.
Under his proposals, the public will have the power to veto excessive council tax rises. (At present only ministers can ‘cap’ these increases).
Any council setting its increase above a set ceiling (approved in, er, Parliament) will trigger an automatic referendum of all registered electors in its area – at the cost of tens of thousands of pounds. The cost alone (at a time of tight budgets) will prevent most local authorities from even trying to carry out big increase.
They will also shy away from such exercises because they know that - in most cases - the public will almost certainly veto the rise, judging by past experience*.
That means the vital decision is the exact level of the ceiling, which will be set by MPs in London. In which case; does this translate into a transfer of power to local people? In effect, probably not.
The most truly democratic/localist way of doing this would be to let councils do what they want. If voters are angered by council tax rises they can vote out their councillors.
* In 2002 Blair allowed a clutch of councils to hold referendums on council tax rises, including Croydon, Bristol and Milton Keynes. Most voters unsurprisingly went for the lowest rise (or freeze).
Ministers have no qualms about standing up to the unions in the current climate, as you can see from the FT’s splash this morning about their attempts to slash redundancy terms for 500,000 civil servants. The coalition is trying to push through a move – initiated by Labour last year - to reduce the maximum pay-off from 6.5 years to 2. It was thwarted in May when the Public and Commercial Service Union won a judicial review against it.
But is the government prepared to go to war against the union movement? This is the implication from this morning’s Times front page – “Ministers in secret talks to toughen strike laws” – which claims that ministers could re-examine changing strike laws if imminent job losses lead to widespread industrial unrest.
I heard a similar rumour last week but was told the government had not changed its position since late June. Then, the CBI called for a change so that strikes could only happen if 40 per cent of the total workforce backed action – rather than, as present, a majority of those who voted. The business group was apparently slapped down by David Cameron, whose spokesman said there were “no plans to change strike legislation.”
Having “no plans” is not the same as ruling something out indefinitely, of course.
It was Ed Miliband who called for all workers to have the right to flexible working earlier in the week – in a speech that pointed out that GDP isn’t the be all and end all of everything. (At present only carers and parents can do so automatically.