Good morning. It's one of those rolling on the floor, laughing out loud mornings if you trouble to read the accounts of Labour's position on HS2. The Guardian, under the headline "Labour will support HS2 - if the price is right", says Ed Miliband has asked Andrew Adonis, its top Rail Lord, to advise him on how Labour can back the project. And it says that those around Ed say the move is a sign of his "determination not to play games with the national interest". So what were the last few weeks about then, if not messing around with a matter of national importance? Labour's idea is to put pressure on Sir David Higgins to bring down the cost, notably by reducing the £14.4bn contingency (though presumably the aim is not to use the contingency at all). Mr Miliband might argue that by playing the tough cop he has turned up the heat on the developers and made it easier for David Cameron in turn to demand cost cuts.
If that's the case, he may have paid a high price for giving the Government a hand - and indulging Ed Balls, who led the resistance to HS2. It's obvious from the complaints of Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham City council in a letter to Mary Creagh detailed in the Indy, that by messing around Mr Miliband has infuriated northern council leaders who looked to HS2 to help bring economic revival to their areas (eventually). Business and the City will also have noticed how the party that led from the front for HS2 has wavered for political purposes. If the argument is that Britain's long-term economic prospects need long-term decision-making, then uncertainty is to be despised and businesses are entitled to be suspicious of parties that foster it. It is right to interrogate the finances of HS2. That's what Sir David will do.
But Labour looks like it has played one of those games Mr Miliband says it opposes. The Tories certainly have been confident for days that Labour would fall into line, precisely because the political price of a U-turn on its own project was too high. But before they start to gloat at the way Mr Miliband is trying to make a virtue of calling off his rebellion, they might ask themselves why they allowed HS2's budget to spiral in the way it has - note the FT leader today which says that HS2 "still fails to justify the whopping price tag attached to the investment." There are plenty of smart folk around who will tell you that the project has suffered from a lack of political grip. Having backed it, Mr Cameron and George Osborne took insufficient interest in the management of the cost. The Treasury traditionally despises such things and perhaps quite enjoyed seeing it run away down the tracks. HS2 is a reminder of No10's serial inability to apply political grip in the long periods when an issue is not in the headlines.
NEW PRESS REGIME DRAWS CLOSER
Ministers on the Privy Council will today advise the Queen to grant a Royal Charter to a new set of rules for journalists that was written by politicians and media campaigners. Sources say that Nick Clegg is expected to chair the meeting at Buckingham Palace. If you are still undecided about the whole thing, consider this: the Government refused to say yesterday who will be in the room to pass the Royal Charter today. Irony of ironies, a secret law is being used to impose greater transparency and accountability. We should know the names of the guilty men.
BIG SIX STILL STANDING
The anticipated smackdown of the Big Six didn't quite happen. Indeed, the biggest attack on the Big Six came not from an MP but Stephen Fitzpatrick, the managing director of a rival firm, Ovo Energy. He told MPs that he "can’t explain" the price rises being imposed because his company is buying gas at a cheaper price than in 2009 and "A significant number of the Big Six are charging the maximum price they feel they can get away with to the customers that they feel will not switch under any circumstances." As we note, he "persuasively challenged their claims to operate in a competitive market. If that were true, how were they able to stop people switching supplier by immediately offering to cut their bills? Why does the price vary so much depending on the tariff?" In the Indy,John Rentoul observes that " a people’s trial set up to vent revolutionary fervour at the expense of the energy company bosses was co-opted by the creative life-force of capitalism to sell us another product." But why didn't the actual MPs do more damage? Michael Deacon says that "Perhaps they were just taking their cue from their interim chairman, Sir Robert Smith (Lib Dem, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine), whose drowsy mumbling made him sound as if he was talking in his sleep."
MCCLUSKEY NOT BUDGING
Len McCluskey is nothing if not persistent. He writes in the Guardianabout the "witch-hunt" and "hysterical smear campaign"against Unite and says that its "priority is standing up for its members in the face of onslaught by powerful companies." It's not the sort of thing that will help with Labour's march on the "Suburban Mindsets" (move over Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman). Mary Riddell writes on how Labour "is targeting all its resources at a small group of voters who can swing the general election vote":100,000 inhabitants of Tory-held marginals. Not that the Conservatives will give these up without a fight: Mr Osborne wants to move his tanks on to suburban lawns and steal Labour’s thunder on low pay.
SCOTS LIKE DAVE - BUT THEY WON'T VOTE FOR HIM
That's the message from Lord Ashcroft's latest polling, which shows that many Scots back the Conservatives on the deficit and the economy, but were put off voting for them because they believed that it's a party for "farmers and toffs". As many as 15 per cent of Scots are "Reluctant Cameroons", who support Dave's policies but just can't vote for him. But Lord Ashcroft has an uplifting message for Scottish Tories too: "If the Scots vote to keep the Union, more powers for Edinburgh could be to the party’s political advantage." You can read the full report here. Meanwhile Theresa May says that an independent Scotland would face greater security threats, as the Guardian reports. But she's certainly not fooling Alex Massie, who writes: "What is the point of this stuff? Who does Theresa May think she is persuading? Vote No to remain beneath the GCHQ umbrella! It’s pitiful stuff, frankly. How does anyone manage to live without the protections afforded by the British security services? I mean, even the Belgians. Come on."
Russia's attempts to bug No 10 with "Trojan horses" have been thwarted by security staff. Mobile phone chargers and USB drives given to the PM’s staff at the G20 summit in Russia were capable of sending data back to the Kremlin. No 10 staff have been warned not to use the "gifts", as the Mail reports.
ARE WE REALLY IN THE EU?
The proposed question on Britain's EU membership may be changedbecause people aren't aware that Britain is already in the EU. James Wharton's bill suggests the referendum question: "Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?" But the Electoral Commission is concerned that this doesn't make it clear that Britain is already a member.
Good morning. The PM is being kept closely informed about the storm but his scheduled daily programme is continuing for now. Away from the storm, HS2 is the big story again this morning. The case is being made that the alternatives wouldn't be pretty: we could expect 2,770 weekend closures over 14 years if HS2 was scrapped, according to new Network Rail analysis. A new Government report will this week make the case for HS2 (and not before time, many will be saying). Dozens of Tory MPs (the FT today puts the figure at 30, which is on the lower side of what I've been hearing) are expected to rebel on HS2 this week. Labour's position remains to wait and see. Dan Hodges explains: "It has genuine concerns about the potential cost of the project. It believes any domestic discontent from Labour authorities can be managed, especially once the run-up to the election has commenced. And most importantly – from its perspective – it sees the opportunity to cause the Prime Minister and the Government maximum political discomfort over a project that’s already making many Tory MPs and activists distinctly nervous."
David Cameron's words on Friday - strongly suggesting that HS2 would be shelved unless Labour support it - are designed to put pressure on Labour to get off the fence once and for all. But they will also make Labour aware of the potential to inflict a humiliating climbdown on the PM.
LABOUR SUPPORT SCRAPPING GREEN TAX
Thirty-four days after Ed Miliband's pledge of a freeze on energy prices, it continues to dominate the political agenda. Labour intends to send direct emails to 100,000 voters in Conservative-held marginal seats to try and expand its support. Caroline Flint has said that Labour would support an overhaul of the Energy Companies Obligation, which adds £47 a year to the average bill and is deemed to be poorly targeted, as The Times reports. Ed Davey has accused energy companies of exaggerating the costs of the scheme, while Danny Alexander yesterday said that green taxes " are not something that Liberal Democrats will compromise on" while Chris Huhne says that green taxes " will save consumers about £166 a year (or 11%) by 2020 thanks to energy saving and diversification from fossil fuels" in his Guardian column. The suggested compromise - to move some green levies to general taxation - " might be a politically tidy way of hiding the costs of the Government’s goals, but it would not actually put any more money in the consumer’s pocket", as we argue. Meanwhile the FT reports that there's a row underway between Ofgem and the Big Six over the importance of wholesale prices in rising bills.
BROOKS-COULSON TRIAL BEGINS
The trial of Rebecca Brooks and Andy Coulson into phone hacking allegations begins today. Be careful what you tweet or blog.
BORIS WANTS TO BE HEARD
Boris Johnson has taken to the letter pages of The Times to try and get Willie Walsh, the CEO of the International Airlines Group, to listen to his case for a new airport in London ("Boris Island").
MITCHELL'S DAUGHTER MAKES HIS CASE
Andrew Mitchell's daughter Hannah has told the Mail that her father was "stitched up" over Plebgate. She said: "I just remember sitting in the chair shaking, being certain that something really terrible was going on, and we would say this to people but no one would believe us. We knew from the word go that it was a conspiracy." Hannah, a Doctor, added: "I have known him always as being a kind, warm, generous character. This caricature came out of an arrogant Tory toff, somebody who was rude and abusive to people."
FALKIRK MAY HAVE LIFE IN IT YET
Labour could reopen the inquiry into vote-rigging in Falkirk. Emails have been disclosed suggesting attempts by Unite officials to undermine the investigation, as The Times reports. One email from Unite's director of legal and membership services Howard Beckett, warned that Unite’s PR team would "prepare the nasty stuff we know of individuals in the Labour Party but this will not be used".
WAR ON THE BEEB?
The BBC could lose funding for "crown jewel" sporting events (such as Wimbledon and the Six Nations) after Maria Miller suggested that different broadcasters would be able to compete for licence fee funding.
UNIVERSAL CREDIT EXTENDS
The Universal Credit will continue its slow roll-out today, with Hammersmith & Fulham the latest council to start trials.
FRANCE v ROBIN HOOD TAX
The Governor of the Bank of France, Christian Noyer, has warned that the Robin Hood Tax poses "an enormous risk" to the eurozone countries and "needs to be entirely reversed."
1030 London: Government appeal against a High Court ruling over plans to reduce services at a major hospital. A judge decided in July that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt acted outside his powers when he announced to Parliament in January that casualty and maternity units at Lewisham Hospital in south-east London would be downgraded. The case will now be heard by Court of Appeal judges. The Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand
1530 London: HMRC give evidence to Commons Public Accounts Committee. Witnesses: Edward Troup, Tax Assurance Commissioner, and Jim Harra, Director-General Business Tax, HM Revenue and Customs House of Commons
1605 London: Transport Minister, airport chiefs and others appear before House of Commons Transport Committee on preparedness-for-winter plans.
Good morning. Lord Adonis won't be happy: a Labour U-turn on HS2 seems upon us. Ed Miliband's decision to "sub-contract" the decision on HS2 to Ed Balls is the strongest indication yet that Labour plans to withdraw its support for the project. Mr Balls is a known sceptic. The only remaining obstacle is Labour accept that the railways have a capacity problem: to this end, expect Labour to split the proposed costs of HS2 two ways, between less glamorous capacity improvements on the rail networks and other "policy goodies", most notably housing.
The decision is not yet confirmed, of course, but - forgetting the economics for a moment - the political logic seems irresistible. Labour has "a money problem". By rejecting HS2 and presenting it as a vanity project, Labour judge that they can go a long way to taking the sting out of Tory attacks. And the public is unconvinced by HS2, with even Tories planning to vote for it next week admitting that the Government hasn't done a very good job of making the case. Indeed, if the Government offered a free vote on HS2, far more Tories would vote against it than the expected 60 oir so.
The other thing to note is that Mary Creagh, Labour's new shadow transport secretary, tells the FT today that she is "open" to the idea of renationalising the railways. This suggests that Labour is less worried about the "Red Ed" tag than presenting themselves as on the side of the consumers. The risk, of course, is that the public sees a party reverting to its comfort zone.
GREEN DEAL AFTER ALL?
We could have progress on energy bills this Parliament after all. Nick Clegg may be willing to sign off on a reduction in green energy levies -The Times says that these could be halved, leading to around £50 being shaved off - as long as these are absorbed into general taxation. The Lib Dems are attracted by the notion that these taxes would be more progressive if paid for out of general taxation. But if the levies are simply transferred to the tax column, then how does the consumer benefit? Energy bill or tax bill, he still pays for the vanity projects of politicians.
There were signs of more Coalition common ground with Mr Clegg's description of Ed Miliband's proposed price freeze as the work of a "24-carat conman". For an analysis of all the suggestions on energy, seeJeremy Warner's piece on why "The power companies are not the bad guys."
LABOUR BY-ELECTION GAIN
Overnight, Labour's Cara Hilton won the Scottish Parliament by-election in Dunfermline, gaining the seat lost to the SNP in 2011. The overall swing to Labour was 7 per cent. They recorded 10,275 votes; the SNP gained 7,402; and the Lib Dems, with 2,852, edged out the Conservatives (2,009) into third. The win will provide cheer for the Better Together campaign, while Labour will believe it provides hope for gains in Scotland in the general election.
CARNEY GOES FOR MORE GROWTH
"We are open for business," Mark Carney yesterday said. The Governor of the Bank of England promised households that he will not rush to raise interest rates or withdraw emergency support for banks and businesses. The ONS publish the latest growth figures at 09.30; growth of 0.8 or 0.9 per cent would add to the sense that the recovery is speeding along nicely. But note Mr Carney's warning that the recovery has yet to gain "that traction".
FOCUS GROUP ED
Red Ed consulted a focus group on whether he should be seen in or out of the top half of his £750 Spencer Hart suit, according to the New Statesman - and "women voters thought the young Milibrother looked more prime ministerial in a jacket."
ANOTHER DR FOX WARNING
Liam Fox has popped up with another warning about defence cuts. Dr Fox says that "as the economy recovers it will become more difficult to recruit and retain" the reserve soldiers necessary to increase the number from 19,000 to 30,000.
Jonathan Aitken says that one anecdote from his new biography of Margaret Thatcher always goes down particularly well. As Ephraim Hardcastle writes in the Mail, "One day the Iron Lady complimented Tory MP Fergus Montgomery on looking well-groomed. Just been to the hairdresser, he replied. Maggie remarked, knowingly: ‘I expect you had a blow job.’ Aitken thinks she meant blow dry."
Breaking News: Nick Clegg has been speaking on the Today programme.
Speaking about the PM's comments about reducing green levies yesterday, Mr Clegg said: "It wasn't something I was expecting and it's not something I fully agree with." He said that "something must be done" about fuel bills and "We need to strike a difficult balance between getting bills down, keeping the lights on and investing in green jobs."
On schools, Mr Clegg said that "This idea that greater freedom means no core standards, in my view, is a nonsense". He said that the Lib Dems would not seek to sack unqualified teachers: "You don’t chuck them out – you make sure they seek a qualification"
Good morning. Following Nick Clegg's surprise on free schools, I reported No10 concerns that the Coalition could be undermined if the two parties started pulling apart earlier than anticipated. David Cameron's panicked response on green taxes yesterday proves the point. His offer to unwind green levies before the election has riled the Lib Dems, in the same way that Mr Clegg's U-turn on free schools has infuriated the Tories. If it wasn't for the yards of royal christening coverage (except for the Indy, which nibbed the happy event at the bottom of p27), yesterday's PMQs would have received greater prominence. The coverage may be reduced, but the consequences will be felt. It seems to me - and I wasn't around yesterday so I'm more behind than usual - that there are two questions to answer. The first concerns Mr Cameron and the process which drove him to making his statement in the Commons. No10, I am told, sounded as surprised as the rest of us in the moments afterwards. Was he ramped? Was it a piece of red meat thrown off the back of the sled in a panic to distract the wolves? Was the idea cooked up in response to Sir John Major's call for a windfall tax? The Conservatives talk of grown-up decisions for a grown-up country, so it's worth working out whether there was anything mature about the deliberative policy process that led to Dave's offer. The casual way with which No10 said the measures covered by green levies could be simply rolled into general taxation (what??!!) suggests not. Labour MPs, who had assumed that Sir John's energy intervention was coordinated with Dave, were pleasantly surprised by it all. Compared to the death of "Vote Blue, Go Green", the announcement of an annual competition test - sensible if unglamorous - was completely drowned out.
The other big question to explore is where it leaves the Coalition. Mr Clegg ambushed Mr Cameron on free schools (not even half an hour's notice in this case) leaving the Tories to worry that electioneering was starting a year earlier than expected. The Lib Dems will think the same of Dave's green lunge. Can the Coalition withstand 18 months of this? The expectation had been that political differentiation wouldn't really start until this time next year. If it's started, then it could have all kinds of consequences. What other policies might start to be unpicked?
Actually, there's a third issue to consider on the back of the energy row. Mr Cameron inveighs against green taxes, Mr Clegg fights back, and meanwhile they have to put their heads together to decide what if anything they do about the Grangemouth plant closure. The loss of 800 skilled jobs in Scotland and the impression of a multinational corporation shafting Scotland will play straight into the debate about the Union and its future. The FT leads on it today, pointing out the stark consequences for the industry and for wider UK manufacturing. The contrast between politicians jockeying for advantage on energy at Westminster while the energy sector in Scotland is in turmoil will have its own consequences.
FREE SCHOOL ROW
Nick Clegg will give his heavily trailled speech on free schools at 10.40 today. Mr Clegg will call for the requirement to employ only qualified teachers and teach the national curriculum to be extended to academies and free schools, as the Indy reports. He will also call for a "champions league" of head teachers to resurrect failing schools.
TIME TO BUY SHARES IN OSBORNE CONSTRUCTION?
Tim Montgomerie has a fascinating piece on George Osborne in The Times today. Or - more accurately - the two Osbornes. As he writes, "There is a Bad Osbo who obsesses about political tactics and a Good Osbo who takes long-term decisions" - and Mr Osborne is often at his best when he is prepared to be unpopular. There is no better sign of the rejuvenation in the fortunes of Osborne Construction (as Crispin Blunt described the British economy in the Commons yesterday, to the Chancellor's visible delight) than the sense that the netx generation of Tory modernisers look to him above Dave, as Rafael Behr argues.
HS2 COULD BE DERAILED
As many as 60 Tory MPs could vote against HS2 next Thursday,according to The Times. But the real question about HS2's future still concerns Labour. The Party still publicly backs the project but will tell its own MPs that they can choose whether or not to attend the vote. Labour sources privately concede that the political logic for opposing HS2, and splitting the funds between some capacity improvements in the rail network and house-building, will be hard to resist. Expect a firm decision from Labour early next year.
There's still no sign of a resolution in the Plebgate affair. At the Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday, three police officers refused to issue any apology, though David Shaw, the chief constable of West Mercia Police, issued a "profound and unreserved" apology to Andrew Mitchell, which Mr Mitchell accepted. Nevertheless, it's clear that the counterattack orchestrated by Mr Mitchell and David Davis is having an impressive effect, "squeezing information out of police sources, then deploying it, through the media and in private discussions, to build political sympathy", as James Kirkup writes.
The mystery of Sir John's speech continues. To Peter Oborne, it was an expression of his unhappiness "with the tougher, more Eurosceptic and hardline Cameron who has emerged over the past 12 months." Meanwhile Norman Tebbit "cannot help wondering if his intervention was really more of a warning to the Prime Minister, not to raise hopes that there could be any worthwhile outcome to the proposed renegotiation of the European Treaties.cannot help wondering if his intervention was really more of a warning to the Prime Minister, not to raise hopes that there could be any worthwhile outcome to the proposed renegotiation of the European Treaties."
BLAIR ADVISER APPOINTED NEW NHS CHIEF
Simon Stevens, former health adviser to Mr Tony, has been appointed as Sir David Nicholson's successor as NHS chief executive. Mr Stevens has agreed to a salary of £189,000 - £21,000 less than Sir David received - and was praised by Jeremy Hunt for his decision to "lead from the front on the issue of high pay". Mr Stevens won admirers beyond the Labour party for his rigour, his openness, and his absence of ideology.
NEW LABOUR FUNDING PROBLEM?
The Co-op Group will next week vote on whether to continue giving up to £1 million a year to the Labour Party, reports the FT. The Group is restructuring to try and improve its financial position. With the nature of Labour's future relationship with the trade unions still unclear, it could be a new funding headache the Party could have done without.
TWEETS AND TWITS
The death of "Vote Blue, Go Green" did not leave Zac Goldsmith impressed:
@ZacGoldsmith: In 2010, leaders fought to prove they were the greenest. 3 yrs on, they're desperately blaming their own policies on the other. Muppets.:
On the Tory side there's a worry that this marks the beginning of electioneering too early. They had anticipated things would not kick off for another year or so. As Rachel Sylvester argues in the Times, voters are unlikely to be impressed by politicians fighting when they should be getting on with the work of government. Expect to hear more of the charge doing the rounds yesterday, that Mr Clegg's new opposition to free schools is part of a core vote strategy - his 10pc to Ed Miliband's 35pc - designed to focus the party's efforts on the votes they need to be sure of being in power with either main party come 2015. By this theory, Mr Clegg needs to pander to those who the Lib Dems traditionally rely on, such as disgruntled Left-leaning teachers who despise the free schools policy. That's no doubt a crude simplification. The one consequence of Mr Clegg's speech, that no number of cosy lunches can fix, is that every yank of the chain weakens No10's faith in the core relationship of the Coalition. It also allows them to speak of Mr Clegg with derision. Until now the centre has avoided the kind of briefing wars that do governments great harm. This week we have had a preview of how nasty things could get among colleagues.
The rows over Britain's brave new nuclear future continue. Michael Fallon envisages that nuclear power will provide a cheaper and less controversial alternative to wind farms. The hope is now that a new generation of 12 nuclear reactors can be built to keep the lights on. We argue that "We may be paying over the odds for new nuclear power, but at least it provides the certainty that has been lacking for so long. Alongside other projects, it should help to ensure, in the long term, that the lights do indeed stay on." But the benefits for local workers may be less than envisaged, with Ed Davey's comments yesterday about the nuclear deal guaranteeing jobs for British workers an aspiration rather than a guarantee, as The Times notes.
MITCHELL REJECTS APOLOGY
Andrew Mitchell has described the apologies of officers accused of trying to destroy his political career as "simply not good enough", his friends told The Times. Look out for the Home Affair Select Committee hearing evidence from senior police about Plebgate tomorrow.
PUTTING US OUT OF BUSINESS?
Cabinet Office civil servants are having an email-free day on Thursday after Stephen Kelly, the Government’s Chief Operating Officer, said he could be left "absolutely overwhelmed and bombarded with the inbox in front of me." Maybe the Morning Briefing should take Thursday off too.
SHOULD THE PM BOYCOTT SRI LANKA?
Douglas Alexander has called on the Prime Minister to boycott next month's meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government in Sri Lanka. Mr Alexander writes for the Guardian that "Even at this late stage, the British government is in a position to exert considerable influence. David Cameron should use the upcoming summit as an opportunity to send a clear signal that the Commonwealth is no hiding place for countries that are unwilling to uphold the human rights of their citizens."
TREASURY STILL TOO SOFT ON PUBLIC SECTOR WAGES
Public sector workers, look away now. Your pay packets could be in more trouble. Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, yesterday told the Public Accounts Committee that, “for all the complaints”, public sector pay was still too high and that "My guess is that the public sector is going to contract." The director general for public spending, Sharon White, was equally blunt: “For the 2015-16 new government, this is going to be one of the big issues — public sector pay in the round,” she said. In the meantime, some Tory backbenchers are concerned about the electoral ramifications of opting for a pay freeze for NHS workers, instead of a planned 1 per cent salary rise.
LEAVE OUR DINNER MONEY ALONE!
MPs are railing against plans to scrap MPs' daily dinner allowance of £15 as part of Ipsa's proposed new deal on MPs' salaries, as The Times reports. At least the free snuff on offer as MPs enter the debating chamber isn't under threat, as Andy McSmith notes.
THE RISE OF THE AUTOCUTIES
Gyles Brandreth, the former MP and broadcaster, who has applauded the rise of the “autocutie”. Labour’s Gloria De Piero and the government ministers Esther McVey and Anna Soubry all received promotions in the reshuffles, and Mr Brandreth applauded their progress." Jeer at the one-time breakfast babes if you will, but they’re used to getting up at 5am, mastering a complicated brief when half-asleep, focusing on the key points and creating a soundbite that says what needs to be said as clearly and concisely as possible”, he told the Radio Times.
BALLS SPEAKS UP
Ed Balls has been speaking about International Stammering Day on Daybreak this morning. Mr Balls spoke about his response to the autumn statement last year: "The thing that was upsetting for me was for people to say I wasn't confident or I wasn't doing my job. It was just: I've got a bit of a stammer, sometimes it comes out."
TWEETS AND TWITS
Chris Heaton-Harris on top form:
@chhcalling: Sweet dreams are made of cheese, who am I to dis a brie.