Good morning! There's a decided spring - even summer - in our step at Morning Briefing Towers, because today is the last one before Tim Wigmore and I head off for an extended summer break, and a long, long sleep. Helpfully, Dave, Nick and Ed have all done the same,disappearing by Easyjet to their hideaways in Portugal, Spain and France (respectively). Westminster is taking to its deckchairs and whatever the valiant efforts of those left behind to man (and woman - sorry Harriet) the Lobby, politics is switching off. So the morning email will too. We hope to return around September 2, but that depends on whether I'm back. In its absence, do try James Kirkup's lively Evening Briefing, which digests the day most usefully, and our new The World Today briefing by Alex Spillius, which summarises the essentials of our foreign coverage. In the meantime, enjoy what's left of the summer, thank you to the tens of thousands who have subscribed so far, and do let us know how we might improve it.
All of which creates difficulties for Ed Balls (who observed the release of the figures from America). We argue that "unlike much of the eurozone, the UK is at least travelling in the right direction. This is something the shadow chancellor finds it hard to come to terms with." The approach Mr Balls is taking is to focus on the squeeze in living standards, but George Osborne, writing in The Times (£), argues that, by "implementing a full spectrum of the most radical changes for a generation — in schools, welfare, tax, skills, planning and universities", growth can be taken to the North and low earners. But, while Mr Osborne writes that disposable incomes have risen by 1.4 per cent on the previous year, The Times (£) note that average earnings rose by less than the consumer price inflation rate.
Larry Elliott distils how George Osborne's economics and politics meshin The Guardian. "Osborne wants to go into the next election with the following message: we inherited a right old mess from the last lot; that mess has taken us longer than we expected to clear up; we stuck to our plan when the opposition told us to change course; the benefits are now coming through; so don't hand power back to the people who screwed up in the first place." Labour might console themselves that they still have almost two years to attack the message - but it's simple and could yet be very effective too, especially with Lynton Crosby at the top of his game,as Tony Blair's former political secretary John McTernan points out.
IMMIGRATION ADS ROW
Matthew Hancock has called on firms to do more to train local workers, and avoid the "easy option" of taking on migrant workers. He told the Mail: ‘As vacancies rise, and unemployment falls further, it is the duty of companies, especially big business, to take on local young people – not immediately take the easy option of recruiting from abroad."
Mr Hancock's intervention comes when there's already a bit of a row breaking out over the two vans with the "Go Home or Face Arrest" billboards currently touring Hounslow, Barking & Dagenham, Ealing, Barnet, Brent and Redbridge. By texting “HOME”, illegal immigrants are offered “free advice, and help with travel documents.” A few Lib Dems have spoken out against it - and it's surely no coincidence that the scheme has coincided with both Nick Clegg and Jeremy Browne being away - but Conservative MPs seem to back the measure. Tim Wigmore blogs on how the billboards fit into the Conservatives' anti-Ukip strategy.
MCINTOSH FIGHTS TO AVOID CHOP
No punches have been thrown, but there is quite a fight breaking outover Anne McIntosh's seat in Thirsk and Malton. The local Conservative executive board decided not to re-adopt Miss McIntosh as its candidate in January - despite her receiving 52 per cent of the vote in 2010 - but the Conservative Party’s national board have ordered another contest in September. It's an unseemly repeat of what happened in 2009: Miss McIntosh is nothing if not a political fighter.
The suspicions that the Lib Dem grassroots would sooner go into coalition with Labour than the Conservatives after 2015 has been given new credence by a new poll for Lib Dem Voice. It finds that, in the event of a hung parliament in 2015, just 18 per cent of Lib Dem members would prefer an alliance (either a coalition or confidence and supply agreement) with the Conservatives, compared to 55 per cent for Labour. Dave had better aim for a majority, then. Meanwhile, as Isabel Hardman writes, Nick Clegg still needs to convince the electorate "that this third party is committed to taking the difficult decisions of government, rather than simply maintaining the idealistic purity of opposition." The autumn conference looms as a big test. But there was some bad news for the party yesterday night - and some more summer cheer for CCHQ - with a notable by-election gain for the Conservatives in Kingston Beverley, as reported in the Kingston Guardian. The ward is in the heart of Ed Davey's seat.
TWEETS AND TWITS
Andrew Griffiths survived the needle:
@agriffithsmp: As a confessed needlephobic,can I reassure anyone thinking about giving blood it didn't hurt a bit & it puts a smile on your face afterwards
Good morning. Dave is trying to create a mood of celebration as the troops head off for summer. He will be helped by GDP figures published at 9:30 this morning, which is expected to show growth of 0.6 per cent in the second quarter. While Labour have been preparing for this upturn - hence Ed Balls's recent emphasis on living standards, as noted in The Guardian - it will add to the sense that the Conservatives are winning the big political arguments.
That's certainly what Michael Gove thinks, anyway. “All the polling evidence from Populus and everyone else, given how narrow the Labour lead is at this stage in the Parliament, leads me to believe that David Cameron will have a majority of such health that we will be able to carry on the changes that we need to”, he said at a Populus event yesterday. But that wasn't the only interesting thing Mr Gove said, who argued that teachers' unions have outlived their relevance and should be replaced by a professional body like the British Medical Association, while condemning teachers' strikes as "hugely irresponsible".
It's undeniable that Mr Cameron has come far this year: the party seems to have moved on from division over Europe and gay marriage (which was signed into law by Dave yesterday) and the Eastleigh by-election to focus its guns on Labour. There are inevitably plenty of problems left for Dave this Parliament. But, with Lynton Crosby helping to rid the party message of sideshows, a "stay the course" election campaign, trumpeting economic progress while appealing for a mandate to govern alone, has the makings of a potent ticket in 2015. But with uncertainty over the technicalities of the Universal Credit, the Coulson trial beginning in September and the prospect of further rows on Europe always lingering, will the summer bounce survive into autumn?
The Morning Briefing will take its summer break after tomorrow. Tim Wigmore and I need to rediscover normal sleep patterns. We'll be back, assuming we are spared and can bear it, in early September. Do send us any thoughts on how we can improve it. From feedback, the email is currently best viewed in gmail.
Mr Miliband – who owes his position to the union block vote – cannot be a credible leader unless he repudiates Mr McCluskey and his ilk, and proves that the Blair years were not just a brief interregnum in Labour’s long march to the Left. The price of that credibility will be to risk bankrupting his party.
Nigel Farage wants to become an MP for a bungalow town with "good ordinary people". This might be a seaside town too: “What’s become really interesting is the phenomenon that no one has really noticed, which is that by accident we’re becoming the seaside party”, he told The Times (£). What could this mean? There's talk of Boston & Skegness, North or South Thanet or Great Yarmouth being seats for Mr Farage's 2015 run. But his path to Westminster may not be helped by the words of UKIP press supremo Gawain Towler. As The Times (£) report, he told Prospect's summer party why didn't take a back to basics approach to politicians' affairs: “A lot of people shag around and drink and so on, so why do we think politicians should be morally better?"
CIVIL SERVICE TENSIONS
There seem to be some vicious office politics in the Civil Service. The Times (£) report a press officer in a different department being asked to recommend anyone at the Cabinet Office: "I wouldn't recommend anyone...They're a bunch of utter bastards."
Good morning. Has David Cameron done enough to kill of the Lynton Crosby story? Of course not! Labour will work away at this one in the time-honoured Westminster fashion, finding new questions every time the previous one is answered, steadily chiseling away at the relationship between the Prime Minister and his Australian strategist. The Guardian and the Times (£) are evidently eager to keep it going - I particularly like the line in Nick Watt's story that 'Labour is suspicious of the final sentence' in the Jeremy Heywood document: the saga has reached the parsing stage when words are picked apart for hidden meaning. Thankfully, Prince Whatsit of Cambridge is a lovely distraction from all politics, and Westminster is getting out the deckchairs and switching off imminently (friends in the Lords got in touch yesterday to point out that peers carry on with the task of scrutiny into next week, bless 'em). It's fast losing an audience.
Timing then favours Mr Crosby and Dave. It becomes a summer story and with most people away it doesn't really count. More importantly, it doesn't meet the critical mass test. Mr Crosby runs a consultancy that uses polling to tell companies how they might improve their message. Lobbying doesn't come into it. He has been anxious to say more and to nail the story but must deal with the reality that faces all Prime Ministers: once you start detailing what conversations you have had, where do you stop? The PM is entitled to speak to people without - to use a phrase - providing a running commentary. Yesterday Labour began lobbing in questions via helpful journalists to widen out the inquiries - has Mr Crosby ever had conversations with any other Tory MPs or anyone at CCHQ about tobacco or drink or fracking or anything else? As is traditional in affairs of this sort, an answer is never enough - it merely prompts new questions. It's worth pointing out that Mr Crosby's company has no fracking or alcohol industry clients in the UK.
The intervention of Sir Jeremy is critical. Neither he nor anyone from his office have spoken to Mr Crosby. The No10 machine is scrupulous about maintaining the separation between government and Tory party. Mr Crosby belongs to CCHQ, not No10. He does not see government papers or get involved in policy decisions. Some Tories wonder if it's the experience of life under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that make Labour assume relationships are more corrupt. I suspect he will be pressed to publish his UK clients list to 'clear the air', though, as I say, that won't be the last of it.
Is the relationship in any way corrupt? Mr Crosby is experienced and wise, and so knows the perils of leaving ambiguity in your business and political relationships. In this one, it's Dave, not Mr Crosby, who is the supplicant. He wanted the Australian to come back and it took some work to persuade him. Mr Crosby is successful enough without needing to use his British contacts to improve his standing. This whole thing is a confection being successfully (well, up to a point) run by Labour as a way of drawing attention away from Labour's Unite troubles. Stories about shadowy Rasputin types, especially foreign ones, are irresistible. But the trouble is Mr Crosby is happy to set it all out, as he did yesterday. Advisers act as lightning conductors. This one fights back.
The Morning Briefing will take its summer break after Friday. Tim Wigmore and I need to rediscover normal sleep patterns. We'll be back, assuming we are spared and can bear it, in early September. Do send us any thoughts on how we can improve it. From feedback, the email is currently best viewed in gmail.
Today's YouGov poll provides some cheer for Labour. It gives them a seven per cent lead over the Conservatives - a reminder that, even as the summer heat looks like getting to Labour, the balance of probability just about favours Ed Miliband being in No 10 after 2015. Mary Riddell writesthat his challenge now is to learn from the resurgence of the monarchy: "Labour’s plan for primaries and community-based resurgence will be popular only if the wide swathe of voters he seeks to court think change has something to offer them."
HELP TO BUY UNDER ATTACK No one has much good to say about the Help to Buy scheme, with the concerns embodied by Graeme Leach, the Chief Economist at the Institute of Directors: “The housing market needs help to supply, not help to buy and the extension of this scheme is very dangerous”. The Times (£) says that Help to Buy is diverting money away from increasing the housing stock. We take a slightly different stance, arguing that thousands of families "will appreciate the Government’s intervention, especially if it spurs the construction of new homes rather than simply raising demand for the existing stock."
ESTABLISHMENT LINES UP BEHIND EU A key adviser to Prince William, Sir David Manning, has told Dave that Britain could be consigned to "irrelevance" if it left the world stage; the Mail has more. Meanwhile, Australia have joined Japan in calling for Britain to remain part of the EU. In a letter sent on 14 February as a contribution to the review of competences, foreign affairs minister Bob Carr wrote: “Australia recognises the UK’s strength and resilience and looks forward to seeing it continue as a leading economy and effective power. Strong active membership of the EU contributes to this." While the review of competences seems to be lining up in favour of EU membership, those opposed to it are not surprised about the direction the Whitehall establishment are taking. The antis will have plenty of time to plan a riposte over the summer break.
VINCE v THE TALIBAN
Vince Cable has attacked the “capital Taliban” in the Bank of England for imposing an excessive financial burden on banks and holding back the recovery, reports the FT (£). Vince believes the BoE is demanding banks hold excessive levels of capital to ensure against further shocks, instead of focussing on small business lending; George Osborne holds similar views. Will Mark Carney reign in what one Treasury official calls the "jihadist tendency"?
A new executive agency, the Crown Commercial Service, will deliver the purchase of "common services" in Whitehall, challenging departmental autonomy. As the FT (£) reports, a shift in the way the government buys up to £12 billion of goods and services will be announced today. It all sounds very technical but if it succeeds in its aim is to save £1 billion a year it'll all be worth it.
TWEETS AND TWITS
Matthew Oakeshott feels ambiguous about the new arrival:
@oakeshottm: Not a great day for social mobility in 21st Century Britain.. But if the alternative's President Blair??Tough call, how do you vote?
1015 LONDON: Court of Appeal ruling over Government plans to go ahead with the HS2 national high-speed rail project. The Royal Courts of Justice. 1030 LONDON: Leyton Orient FC chairman Barry Hearn (1045) and West Ham United director Karren Brady (1115) give evidence to Lords Committee on Olympic legacy. Committee Room 4A
Good morning. Ed Miliband is lucky the summer news - heat, Ashes, baby prince - means there's little appetite for Labour's troubles. The detail of what's going on with his party is passing the public by. He's trying to get back on the front foot by revealing that he will hold a special conference probably next spring to sort out the whole business of Labour's financial relationship with the unions, as the Guardian report. But that's starting to look dicey. Labour can't afford to lose the cash, and already there are mutterings of anxiety from both MPs and trade unionists about what his reform of the affiliation rules means in practical terms. He acted under pressure and in haste, and can now repent at leisure.
Colleagues shouldn't underestimate his resolve though: Mr Miliband wants things to change, he's got Harriet Harman working away at it and he believes a way can be found to modernise the relationship without damaging the party's ability to function. But look at the Ashcroft poll of Unite numbers, which the Sun and the Mail have particularly focused on. It illustrates the glaring gap between party and union leadership, and members who have no idea what is done in their name with their money. The poll finds that only 49 per cent of members would vote for Labour (23 per cent would vote Conservative), only 16 per cent recognised Mr McCluskey - and fully 86 per cent backed the benefit cap, which Mr McCluskey staunchly opposes. Hence The Sun's headline "Union is united... against boss Len". It all amounts to a further reminder that, as Robert Halfon and others have been keen to emphasise, there is no reason why the Conservatives can't become the party of the trade unions.
The Tories can see that the union link is once more a source of weakness and embarrassment to a Labour leader, and will exploit it relentlessly. One of the reasons Mr Cameron is said to be happy to stonewall questions about Lynton Crosby is that he believes the Miliband-McCluskey link is far more embarrassing. I expect the Tories will look for ways to clear their decks of their own difficulties in order to leave them clear to focus all fire on Labour. The leaders are heading off for their summer break. This weekend marks the point at which Westminster pulls down the shutters. But on current trends there can be no relief for Labour. Unlike the Tories, the summer does not mark a break with an unhappy recent past.
WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT?
The EU is good for Britain. That's the entirely predictable verdict of the first six of 32 review documents examining Britain’s relationship with the European Union, covering the single market, health, development co-operation and aid, foreign policy, animal health and welfare and food safety, and taxation. The review found that the balance of competences between the EU and member states was broadly appropriate - enough to have Peter Bone complaining of a "Whitehall whitewash" while Nigel Farage lamented “a futile and cynical PR exercise”. As we note, it's a review that will cause few to change their mind either way. But, if it sounds like great news for Dave, it's not without potential problems - "the reports appear not to give the prime minister a strong evidential base from which to argue for a renegotiation of powers", as the FT (£) notes. Still, Dave may be grateful for the timing of the review - the royal baby limits the Mail's coverage to half a page on page 28.
WHEN NUMBERS GO WRONG
While this is much summer loving in the Government, a couple of worrying figures show the challenges that still lie ahead. Nearly half of the "fit for work" reports carried out on disabled people are of "unacceptably" poor quality, a government review has found. The PM's official spokesman has admitted he is "concerned" by the failings of Atos: around a third of those who appealed against being denied Employment Support Allowance have been successful and subsequently been given the benefits.
The Help to Buy scheme has subsidised an estimated £1.3bn-worth of house purchases in the past four months in the UK housing market - nearly 7,000 homes and equivalent to more than a third of sales of such property over this period, reports the FT (£). So it's a good time for George Osborne to announce more details of the second part of the Help to Buy scheme, guaranteeing part of high loan-to-value mortgages.
Breaking News: The Duchess of Cambridge has been admitted to hospital, which means politics won't get a look in. You can follow all developments on our irresistible liveblog.
INTERNET PORN CRACKDOWN UP IN LIGHTS
Good morning. Downing Street has won praise from the Mail and got its crackdown on internet porn up in lights this morning. The Prime Minister teed it up on Marr yesterday, with details to come in his speech today. It's a good opener for the recess season, and has the merit of being something concrete (though Guido Paul put his finger on the question the government is really asking). But the Prime Minister's Sunday morning outing was not all success. Mr Cameron got into hot water on tax and on Lynton Crosby. What should we take away from his interview? Two conclusions. First, on tax: where George Osborne was categorical (no tax rises under the Tories if they win in 2015), Mr Cameron hedged. At one level this is no bad thing (and we argue as much in our leader this morning). Dave is too smart to make the Bush mistake. He knows he can never say never, and when he describes himself as a tax-cutting Conservative, he's right up to a point. It's worth reminding ourselves that however weedy their approach at the moment, it's the Tories who are most likely to reduce your tax bill. By hedging Mr Cameron sounded uncertain, which was refreshing. Acknowledging that not everything may be possible is healthy.
Which is where the second conclusion comes in: he hedged too, but worse, over Lynton Crosby. For my money, his glib 'that's the answer you're getting' was a bit too arrogant, like Gary Hart challenging reporters to come and find him. The Guardian has obliged, with another attempt at an expose. It's noticeable that so far none of it is sticking. Mr Crosby is smart enough to avoid hostages to fortune. He's also a businessman: he has clients, not all of them may be to the Guardian's liking. But it doesn't follow that he has allowed conflicts of interest to risk spoiling his involvement with the Conservatives (notice how Dave and Tories yesterday talked distinctly about Mr Crosby advising the party, not the Prime Minister). Mr Crosby is clear that were the full detail of conversations and contacts be set out in detail, the case for the prosecution would collapse in an instant.
Mr Cameron though seems to be pursuing another route, which is to stonewall in the hope it will go away. The more he does, the more he draws attention to the gap between the questions and his answers. It helps that no one has heard of Mr Crosby, and that Westminster will shortly be deserted. But the Rebekah Brooks business taught us that Dave's cheery evasiveness carries risk. Lynton Crosby is an asset to the Tories. Mr Cameron should avoid turning him into a liability by making it sound shifty.
It's our last week before Tim Wigmore and I take a mostly deserved break. We are aware of some issues to do with email delivery time and are working on these. Meanwhile, those receiving the emails on an AOL email account might want to sign up with a different account. As usual, we would welcome any comments so we can raise our game in September.
CAMERON'S PLANS TO COMBAT PORN
Mr Cameron will outline his plans to tackle internet pornography in a speech at 11:15 in London today. The measures will include a a “blacklist” of the most depraved and illegal search terms and a new national database of child abuse images for the police and child protection agents to use, while those wishing to access porn will be required to un-tick a box pre-set to enforce parental controls. The PM will also suggest a law restricting the distribution of "extreme" online videos and ensuring that the possession of pornographic portrayals of rape is a criminal offence.
BALLS PLANS TO STOP THE SQUEEZE
In a week when the ONS are expected to announce that GDP rose 0.6 per cent in the second quarter of 2013 - double the 0.3 per cent growth in the first quarter - Ed Balls is painting himself as the squeezed middle's champ. He will this week co-chair the first meeting of a new transatlantic commission - the Inclusive Prosperity Commission - with Larry Summers.Mr Balls writes for The Guardian that "most families are not seeing any recovery in their living standards, with average wages after inflation still falling; in fact, family incomes are now facing the longest squeeze since the 1870s."
Michael Gove is in search of some new plans. He will embark on a series of roadshows in the autumn to debate his policies with "ordinary" head teachers and is planning to step up his contact with the teaching unions,notes The Times (£). If Mr Gove wants to endear himself to them, perhaps he should show off his gentleman rapping: Kirstie Allsopp has revealed Mr Gove's secret talent in The Sun.
DON'T MENTION IT
The first stage of the balance of competencies review will be unveiled today, focussing on internal market, tax and foreign policy. We already know that Japan warns in the review that investment in the UK is dependent upon its place in the EU, as the FT (£) reports. If it has caught you by surprise, that's deliberate: it's been kept low key to keep the Tories as united on Europe as possible. It will be unveiled by Baroness Warsi in a written statement to the Lords today; it's almost as if the party hopes MPs will be too busy enjoying recess to notice.
Do you ever Google yourself? If you ever want to be a Tory MP, you had better. Tory selection panels are now asking prospective candidates: "What is the most embarrassing thing we would find out if we Googled you?"
TWEETS AND TWITS
Claire Perry's success comes at a price:
@claire4devizes: A 4am start today given the huge media interest in the PMs speech on Internet filters...
Good morning. The summer holidays started yesterday - the Mirror and Sun have the ritual pics of a deserted Commons chamber to prove it - but David Cameron is around for another week or so: it's business as usual, for government at least, until he goes away. The mood though is distinctly summerful. Tories are chipper. Various polls show the gap with Labour closing to insignificance - it's nothing at all according to ICM and down to five per cent with YouGov, though Ipsos still have it at 11 per cent - not bad for mid-term.
There is no running story to challenge the broad narrative of a competent government getting on with its work. Crime is down despite police spending cuts, as we laud, the economy is improving, the sun is shining, what's not to like? Maria Miller is having a bit of a 'mare - the Times reminds us that her nickname in Whitehall is Nicola Murray - but that will hardly trouble Dave. Labour is going all out for Lynton Crosby (who will quit his "conflicting" roles at the end of the year), but it doesn't feel particularly toxic. George Osborne has got his bounce back - his move to cut tax on shale production to 30 per cent is the latest sign - though he knows better than to say anything about green shoots until they are a thicket. According to the FT (£), he held a beauty contest for potential ministers at Dorneywood in March, a reminder that his writ extends well beyond the Treasury.
On all the big policy areas, led by the economy, the Coalition's work is being rewarded. Warriors against complacency will rehearse the dangers: universal credit could yet turn into a short-and medium-term horror show; and there's the Coulson/Brooks trial that will provide a tricky backdrop to the autumn. But on a sunny Friday at the start of the recess, both Conservatives and Lib Dems have cause to show a bit of optimism after a difficult winter. What the past few weeks teach them, I suspect, is that their best bet is to let the election campaign look after itself, and make a virtue of what they are doing now, namely governing.
Nick Clegg is pressing to establish the Liberal Democrats as the party of the centre ground. He will use this September's conference to try and push the Lib Dems to the centre ground on the economy, tuition fees and the retention of a limited nuclear deterrent, as the Guardian reports. Many Lib Dems, including the Social Liberal Forum pressure group, are reluctant to be seen to take ownership for the Coalition's economic policy at the next election.
DAVID WARD SUSPENDED
The Lib Dems have suspended David Ward for remarks he made over Israel. Mr Ward, who has been warned by his party before over comments on Israel, tweeted, "Am I wrong or are am I right? At long last the Zionists are losing the battle - how long can the apartheid State of Israel last?" The Lib Dems have suspended the whip until mid-September. Ward, MP for Bradford East, is defending a majority of only 365 votes.
ROBERTS ON THE ATTACK
Bob Roberts attacked a tabloid journalist for writing "the worst piece of journalism" he had "ever read" over a piece written about the Keogh Report. Bob, who used to work for the Mirror, is one of the great unflappables of Westminster, so he really must have been cross.
EDS SPLIT OVER HS2?
Ed Balls has become the first shadow cabinet member to publicly express concerns over High Speed 2, telling the FT (£) that he was “concerned about rising costs” and the project could not be handed a "blank cheque". Ed Miliband remains staunchly in favour of HS2, hinting at a potential rift between the two Eds, to go with their differing opinions on a third Heathrow runway - Mr Balls is in favour while Mr Miliband is opposed.
PARKING BAD NEWS
No one feels much like driving in this heat. Norman Baker is considering almost doubling parking fines outside London - from £70 to £130, as the Mail reports - amid concerns that they no longer act as a deterrent. Evidently he thinks it's a good time to park bad news.
TWEETS AND TWITS
Andrew Stephenson on the perks of the job:
@Andrew4Pendle: Arrived at Barrowford's Got Talent Competition...judging this event is certainly the best part of my job!!