Good morning. Labour is making big efforts to make sure it gets credit for the competition inquiry into the Big Six energy companies. Ed Miliband wants everyone to know that it was his pledge of a price freeze last autumn that triggered a political panic in Number 10 that led, eventually, to yesterday's announcement from Ofgem. He will propose additional price controls today, extending his market-rigging idea to business. The Guardian has the details and leads with them ('Miliband calls for new curbs on energy bills'). Labour will try to call a Commons vote next week on an immediate price freeze to keep the pressure up. Mr Miliband is due to speak to the Federation of Small Business today. His argument is that the inquiry ordered by Ofgem dovetails with the 20-month price freeze he's promised for after the election.
Labour will also try to make the most of Sam Laidlaw's reaction to Ofgem yesterday when he said the inquiry would threaten investment and could lead to power blackouts. The Daily Mirror gives a flavour of what's to come, with a pic of Mr Laidlaw's face on a light bulb with the headline "The blackout blackmailer" and "Yesterday this £2m a year energy fat cat had the nerve to claim a probe into fixing their sky-high prices may lead to power cuts… How dare he and his arrogant pals treat us with such contempt". The Mail has something similar: "British Gas 'blackmail'" Mr Laidlaw can look after himself, but you can see that for politicians of any stripe, but particularly Labour, the plutocrats who are paid loads to keep the lights on are an easy target. It helps that the workings of the energy industry are as complex as the NHS: few in the Westminster village - politicians and journalists - understand them enough to form a reliable view.
If No10 thinks Ofgem has holed the Labour case, they need to get people out there saying so. If the point is that the market is deemed to be sufficiently flawed to require a competition review, then it must follow that Labour's prescription is premature and the consumer - and the markets - would be better served by all parties agreeing to put off a debate until the outcome of the review is known. The Miliband price freeze now looks like a pre-emption of the CMA's eventual conclusions. He may say they fit together, but can he really propose a fix before he knows what he's fixing? Then there's the wider political challenge. Labour in power did nothing to keep the country in power. Mr Laidlaw may be a fat cat, but he's a correct fat cat: the British political market is shaped by political uncertainty and tinkering. If costs are high and investment prospects bleak, it's because politicians have allowed them to be. It is perfectly reasonable to say the energy market is badly constructed and doesn't work, but it does not follow that putting supply at risk by making investment even riskier is the right response. MAKING FRIENDS WITH GERMANY There's an important op-ed from George Osborne and Wolfgang Schäuble in the FT. The crucial line is in the title: "two-speed Europe". Tucked in the piece is the commitment that EU reform must "guarantee fairness for those EU countries inside the single market but outside the single currency." The Government will be thrilled: the German foreign minister has accepted the British argument for treaty protection for those outside the euro zone; it will provide Mr Osborne and Dave with hope that the EU may yet be remodelled to suit British national interests. The article also advocates the EU becoming more "flexible and outward-looking", and highlights a transatlantic trade and investment deal as the next step: "This would be the world’s biggest ever trade deal, a huge economic prize." It all amounts to perhaps the most significant sign of Anglo-German cooperation yet. But, while Britain has a powerful friend, it needs to cultivate many more to get the reformed EU it desires. DO THE DEBATES HELP DAVE? Of course, Nigel Farage reckons any renegotiation is all a complete waste of time. The Ukip leader pops up with another attack on the EU, laying into the "vanity" of its foreign policy and saying that Brussels was poking the "Russian bear with a big stick". We can expect to hear plenty more along those lines during the second Clegg-Farage debate next week. Fraser Nelson challenges those who (including me) who reckon that the debates will leave Dave as a loser on the sidelines. In his column, he says that the "centre-ground" on Europe has now been vacated: "while he’s saying little about what he wants from Europe, he now seems to be the only leader in Westminster offering anything resembling grown-up discussion." It all raises the question: will there be general election debates next year? Andrew Grice's story in the Indysuggests that the answer is no. The Conservatives are accused of ruling out negotiations until after the conference season, and Labour and Lib Dem sources say that Dave is "running scared". We certainly haven't heard the last of this one. HUNT TOLD TO 'BUGGER OFF' Jeremy Hunt is at war with Sir Bruce Keogh, the NHS's medical director. In a clash last November, Sir Bruce implored Mr Hunt not to announce his plans to restructure A & E services, and reportedly told the Health Secretary to "bugger off"'; senior NHS figures also tell the Guardian that Mr Hunt is a "control freak". Will all the ill-feeling stop Mr Hunt pressing ahead with his reforms? I somehow doubt it. U-TURN ON LEGAL AID CUTS Given all the uproar surrounding them, it's surprising that the U-turn over legal aid cuts hasn't got more coverage in this morning's papers. As the Guardian details, the Ministry of Justice has agreed to defer most of the proposed savings until next summer, when they will be reviewed. But the fight may only have been postponed until after the general election: the MoJ still plans to reduce its legal aid budget by £215 million by 2018-19. BENN'S MARCH OF THE RED FLAG It was Tony Benn's sendoff yesterday, as St Margaret's Church was packed to its 750-strong capacity with political friends and foes alike. Naturally, The Red Flag was among the songs that played. Owen Jones likens the funeral to an impromptu demonstration: trade union, Labour party and peace banners fluttered in the breeze. It's well worth reading Michael Deacon's lovely account of the day: "silence felt inappropriate to the memory of this unstoppably voluble man." SAYING SORRY TO PICKLES Neil Kinnock and Sadiq Khan have apologised to Eric Pickles after the shadow justice minister tweeted a letter from the ex Labour leader warning that Mr Pickles's participation in the London marathon could lead to "a helpful by-election". Tories have already laid into Mr Khan, whose dreams of being London Mayor after Boris will not have been helped.
0800 EDINBURGH: Ex-Scottish Secretary addresses accountants. Michael Moore MP, former Secretary of State for Scotland, addresses an Institute of Chartered Accountants Scotland (ICAS) business breakfast. The Royal Scots Club , 29-31 Abercromby Place.
0900 MANCHESTER: Federation of Small Businesses conference, with Ed Miliband and skills minister Matt Hancock. 0900 Conference opens 0945 Speech by FSB national chairman John Allan 1105 "In conversation" event with Ed Miliband 1415 Speech by Matt Hancock Manchester Central conference centre, Windmill St.
1000 ABERDEEN: Scottish Liberal Democrat spring conference. Speakers in the afternoon include Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, Exhibition Avenue.
Good morning. Nigel Farage will be delighted by last night, and by this morning's coverage. He's given the win, thanks to a snap YouGov poll in the Sun, which favoured him over Nick Clegg by 57pc to 36pc (we should note that LBC's reaction tracker "worm" during the debate was less decisive). The YouGov margin is "convincing" to the Times, "decisive" to the Guardian. The Mail doesn't qualify the win, but headlines "First blood to Farage". The Sun declares: "Nigel fries Clegg for breakfast - he wins TV debate". The Telegraph concludes that both men will be happy with the event, which has "whetted the appetite for similar televised clashes in the general election campaign next year". That said, the coverage is a touch muted: the Guardian and Times use pictures of the two on their fronts, but there's no mention of it on p1 of the Sun, Mirror, Mail or - even - the Express. Quentin Letts had it right: "This was an interesting duel. And as can happen in duels, neither combatant sustained anything more than a glancing flesh wound. Both live to delight us another day." The more detailed coverage carries some worrying points for Mr Farage though. He won't like the Times riff on the buffoon who managed not to fall off the stage. Or Michel Deacon's observation that he shone - because he sweated. The Guardian records the "surprise" in the spin room, where opinion "appeared to come down on the side of Clegg". The spin room was noticeable not just for Kay Burley's walk and talk heroics, but for who turned up to do the spinning, particularly on the Tory side. Andrew Mitchell, Peter Bone and John Redwood were on hand to lend their insights, which rather neatly captures the problem David Cameron faces. His absence from the fray leaves a vacuum, and he has no control over who will fill it for him. He may judge that too few will have tuned in for it to matter, but those that did will have heard Tory voices that might not necessarily talk Mr Cameron's language. In my column this week I suggested that far from the win-win outcome Downing Street imagined, the debate could be a lose-lose for the Tories. If Mr Farage is accepted to have won last night, what might that mean? Tory activists fighting Ukip in marginals will have watched and, I suggest, tugged at their hair in despair, knowing that his performance will have helped the Ukip cause. Tory MPs too will be anxious, as Ukip successes underscore their anxieties about Mr Cameron. He has launched a debate on Britain's place in Europe, but is leaving it to others for the moment. He says he believes Britain should stay in the EU, but is not doing much to make the case. As I argued on my blog last night, it is possible to lose from the sidelines. For a quick recap of the debate you can watch Matthew Holehouse's video analysis here. IMMIGRATION ANGST
Immigration isn't only in the papers for its prominence in the Clegg-Farage debate. The Times splashes with how Dave is being pressurised to follow Angela Merkel's lead. A German government panel yesterday proposed that EU migrants should be removed if they failed to find work within three months, and Tory backbenchers, including Nigel Mills, Dominic Raab and David Davis, have already called on the PM to do something similar in Britain; Conservatives will be intrigued that more can be done to address concerns on immigration without particularly upsetting other countries in the EU. Meanwhile the FT reports on an ingenious new way of reducing net migration: fiddle the figures. Theresa May believes net migration could be cut by 19,000 through shortening visas for foreign employees by as little as one day, which will avoid designating them as migrants. The danger, of course, is such a nakedly political move could backfire. But with the latest figures showing net migration in 212,000, Mrs May's attempts to reduce the figure to a little closer to the "tens of thousands" target are understandable. BIG SIX UNDER THE COSHThe energy market is dominating much of the coverage on Today this morning, with the announcement that Ofgem have made their first full investigation into whether the Big Six are impeding competition. Dermot Nolan, the OfGem chief executive, told Today: "We've done a long study of the market and found competition is not working as well for consumers as it should be." Labour MPs are already flooding Twitter to argue that this amounts to vinidcation for Ed Miliband. In fact, it gives Mr Cameron an opportunity to argue that a price freeze is pointless when we don't know what the outcome of the two year referral process will be. On Today, Centrica's Sam Laidlaw said that "If we have this inquiry and it re-establishes trust in the sector, that can only be good" but he also warned that there would be an "increasing risk" of blackouts due to the competition probe. Perhaps not the wisest PR move.
Dave yesterday announced - with "regret" - that plans to relax the hunting ban are likely to be abandoned, with the Liberal Democrats being blamed. The Coalition Agreement promised a free Commons vote on whether to retain the hunting ban, but there's still no sign of a timetable. Shire Tories will be livid. MAKE YOUR MIND UP, BOJOPaul Goodman takes to the Guardian to plead with Boris to make his mind up, once and for all, over whether he's standing at the next general election. What exactly, is taking Boris so long? Simple: "the mayor simply does not want to serve under Cameron." This leaves him with an awkward dilemma: "If he doesn't stand, he may miss out on a leadership election; but if he does, that contest may not happen." IDS LAYS INTO ED
Iain Duncan Smith last night branded Ed Miliband's backing for the welfare cap as a "scam" and called on him to "immediately" outline what cuts Labour would make to ensure the budget was kept within the legal cap. Mr Miliband yesterday voted for the welfare cap, which means that welfare spending cannot rise above inflation from its current level of £119.5 billion until 2020. The measure was passed by 520 votes to 22, but there were some significant dissident voices: 13 Labour MPs opposed the cap, including former frontbenchers Tom Watson and Diane Abbott. In the Times, Jenni Russell says that Mr Miliband's inner circle "is private, secretive, centralised and controlled" and the Labour leader is alienating too many people in his party. In the New Statesman, Rafael Behr argues that "Labour’s problem is that, when the Conservative attacks are constant, Miliband’s silences are too long and too loud." DOING BUSINESS WITH THE ENEMY The FT sheds light on the links between the British establishment and the Russian business world. Lord Mandelson, Lord Owen and the Tory MP Charles Hendry are among those with lucrative paid links. But the piece pays particular attention to Lord Skidelsky, who has a directorship with Rusnano Capital, which aims to attract investment into nano-tech projects in Russia, and has advocated Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine being given the chance to break away from Kiev. SCOTS DON'T TRUST GEORGEGeorge Osborne may be at ease in a bingo hall, but Scots think that he's bluffing when it comes to ruling out a currency union. The Times finds that only 40% believe Mr Osborne's assertion that the rest of the UK would reject a currency deal. There's also bad news for the head of the Better Together campaign: only 28% of Scots trust Alistair Darling, compared with 61% who do not. GOVE GETTING CLOSER TO DOWNING STREET
The Education Secretary is edging nearer to No 10. 4,000 ft closer, to be exact. As The Times diary reports, the Department for Education is moving into the Old Admiralty Building, which is being vacated by the Foreign Office, after the general election. The building has plenty of history to inspire Michael Gove: the Government sent its telegram declaring war on Germany from there in 1914, and Ian Fleming developed James Bond when he worked there in World War Two. The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter
Pensions minister Steve Webb announcement on pension charges.
Some changes to give people more flexibility over their pension pots announced in the Budget come into force today. They include the overall amount of pension wealth you can take as a lump sum being increased from £18,000 to £30,000.
11am Funeral of Tony Benn. Mr Benn's funeral will take place opposite parliament at St Margaret's Church after his body is taken by hearse from the gates of New Palace Yard, with family members following on foot. St Margaret's Church, Westminster.
1130am London Mayor Boris Johnson appear before the London Assembly Police & Crime committee.
Good morning. It's the one we've all been waiting for. Yep, the Clegg-Farage debate is at 7pmtonight, near Trafalgar Square; it's live on LBC (you can watch it here). At a time when day-to-day political life is exceptionally dull, lets all hope that the debate spices up politics. It's also a mark of the shift away from two-party politics that the clash qualifies as a genuine public event; a decade ago a meeting between the leaders of Ukip and the Liberal Democrats would have been an event marked "for anoraks only". It has become the conventional wisdom that tonight's affair should qualify as a win-win for Mr Clegg and Mr Farage. If this is true, it's worth reminding ourselves that translates to a lose-lose for the Conservatives, as I pointed out yesterday. For Labour the calculation is less clear as many party strategists quietly welcome Ukip's rise as a device for splintering the Right-wing vote. But it's worth remembering that the main - perhaps even the only - reason why Labour's poll lead is tiny but resilient is that the party has become the adopted home for Left-wingers who plumped for the Lib Dems in 2010. If tonightmarks the start of the long overdue political resurgence of Nick Clegg, that will be bad news for Ed Miliband. Perhaps both the Conservatives and Labour will regret reducing themselves to bystanders in the 2014 version of Edward Heath's "Who Governs Britain?" debate. The official word from Dave is that he's too busy to watch, but that's not fooling anyone. In the Guardian, Patrick Wintour has an excellent primer ahead of the debate. The Times leaderwelcomes the debates (there's another next week) as a potential antidote to apathy and declining voter turnout. It says that "Similar exchanges could usefully be held on subjects such as immigration, the health services and intervention abroad", and warns that it would be "a mistake" not to hold TV debates in 2015. A BIG ED-ACHE
Although Labour's lead ticks up to three points in the latest Yougov poll, there's plenty of bad news for Ed Miliband this morning. Again. The Times splashes with the headline "Miliband is not fit for No 10, say most voters", which finds that only 19 per cent say that they could imagine Mr Miliband in Downing Street. The figure is unchanged from September 2012; when the same question was asked about Dave in September 2008, 49 per cent said yes. It gets worse, too: only 26 per cent think that Labour is ready for government. But it's not just the numbers that are uncomfortable reading for the Labour leader. David Lammy admits that Labour has yet to "cross that Rubicon to being a government in waiting" and calls on Ed to "spell out he is relevant and can inspire and motivate". Meanwhile John Mills, one of the party's highest donors, says that Mr Miliband is "less sympathetic" towards business than most voters would like but his policies are merely "rhetoric", seemingly casting doubt on whether Labour's proposed reforms to the banking and energy sectors are more than just hot air. The leader will vote for the welfare cap today, but Patrick Wintour reckons that as many as 20 Labour backbenchers will rebel and vote against. And The Sun also makes for unpleasant reading for Labour: 64 of the party's 106 target seats received no donations last year. If this was the Conservative party, we would be writing of a Civil War; as it is, most Labour dissent still simmers beneath the surface. AUTHORS v GRAYLING
A coterie of writers use the Telegraph letters page to come out against Chris Grayling's instructions to limit books and other items being sent to prisoners from family and friends. The authors, who include Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and one Jeffrey Archer, say that "Books represent a lifeline behind bars, a way of nourishing the mind and filling the many hours that prisoners spend locked in their cells. In an environment with no internet access and only limited library facilities, books become all the more important." Allan Massie also doesn't approve. BONE IN THE CLEAR
Peter Bone and his wife Jennie will not face charges over allegations of fraud connected with her mother's care home arrangements. The Crown Prosecution Service said that there was insufficient evidence to charge them with any criminal offence. FRACK ON
Fracking: it's time to get on with it, says Dave. The PM says it will be "good for our country" and says, "By the end of this year there should be some unconventional gas wells up and running that we can demonstrate and I think the enthusiasm for it will grow." NO BOJO SILVER BULLET
Good news for Michael Gove, George Osborne and the Stop Boris campaign. In a new Yougov poll in Prospect, only 35 per cent say that Boris is well suited to being PM; Peter Kellner explains that "the prospect of Johnson leading the Tory Party does little to improve its electability." If the notion of Boris as a "silver bullet" for the Conservatives is undermined, so may much of the appeal he holds to those within the party. A GAMBLING CHANCELLORIf you need a morning laugh, read Michael Deacon's brilliant sketch on George Osborne's visit to a bingo hall in Cardiff, as a couple of regulars showed him the ropes. In the Mail Stephen Glover reckons one gamble that could pay off is raising the inheritance tax threshold: "audacious tax cuts are popular not only with people who will immediately benefit from them, but also with those who can imagine doing so." The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter
1230 David Cameron oral statement to House of Commons on last week's European Council summit.
1415 Commons Environmental Audit Committee takes evidence on HS2 impact on environment. Thatcher Room, Portcullis House.
1500 MPs to vote on welfare cap and Charter for Budget Responsibility. Debate expected to last around 90 minutes, following PM's statement on European Council summit. House of Commons
1900 Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage hold EU debate. The head-to-head, the first of two in the run-up to the May 22 Euro elections, will be broadcast on LBC. The second will be broadcast on BBC2 on April 2. Both will also be broadcast by Sky News
Good morning. Another bad round of headlines for Ed Miliband. Just about everyone has some version of Miliband under pressure: "Labour MPs urge Miliband to change tune" in the FT, Miliband under pressure to end 'the old politics'", in the Guardian (with a traditional Polly Toynbee exhortation to him to "be bold"). The Mail is "Miliband faces revolt…." and mentions "Labour civil war" in the intro. The Sun is more original: "Up leadership creek - Labour hit by Ed-ache". In the Telegraph it's "Miliband faces MPs rebellion", a reference to those MPs who won't join him in voting for the Government's welfare cap tomorrow. The Times says there's a row between Douglas Alexander and Jon Cruddas over the manifesto. More broadly the papers report on various expressions of backbench grumbling, and the latest evidence that the polls are closing. It's all grist to the Tory mill, of course. Downing Street intends to focus its efforts on the economy. On the back of the Budget, the Tories reckon they are at their strongest talking about their success at getting the recovery going, and believe that talking about the economy serves to highlight Labour's inadequacies. What they are really hoping for, though, is more of what we see this morning. David Cameron believes Mr Miliband is in for a lengthy period of scrutiny as the media begin to focus on the Opposition. He hopes that everyone else will notice what he believes is the glaring hole in the Labour offer: that Mr Miliband has a series of observations about the economy, but no overarching story to tell about what he would do if he was in charge. "He's worked out that people have found it tough since 2008. Well done. Congratulations. Full marks. We spotted that a while ago and have done lots about it," is how one member of Team Cameron put it to me yesterday. If it is the case that we are settling in for a period of Labour internal turmoil provoked by George Osborne's Excocet Budget, then we will indeed look back at it as a telling moment of the Parliament.
DAVE'S NEW INHERITANCE TAX PLEDGE
Almost as if by accident, Dave has earned the Mail's approval. In a Q and A session, the PM voiced his concern about what could only be described as the creep of inheritance tax. The result is the Mail's splash: "I will act on death taxes" (and 'Will' is underlined just incase the message isn't clear enough). Mr Cameron said that inheritance tax was "something we’ll have to address in our manifesto" and said that it "should only really be paid by the rich – it shouldn’t be paid by people who’ve worked hard and saved and who bought a family house." In the short-term, many will welcome the words as a way of winning back grey votes hurt by low interest rates, many of whom may have been tempted to vote for Ukip. Yet the serious point is a more prosaic one: we are barely halfway through austerity. Can the Conservatives afford tax-cutting promises without storing up problems for tomorrow? And, given that something similar was promised before 2010, there may also be a trust issue. A Labour shadow cabinet member says it's all "odd" and mocks the PM's suggestion as: "Inheritance Tax...again: 'This time, it's serious' ". THESPS FOR GEORGE
In the Mail, Ephraim Hardcastle, having already explained the measures that the Chancellor is undertaking to restore youthful vim to his hair, has another update on how George Osborne is getting himself into shape. As if to celebrate the public backing of Felicity Kendal and Simon Callow for tax breaks for theatres, Mr Osborne has had acting and voice lessons from RADA, and speech therapy from Valerie Savage, a Harley Street specialist. If these aren't the actions of a man with designs of making himself more electable for the top job, then what are?
GRAYLING FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS
Chris Grayling has got himself into a few battles. Prison campaigners are furious over regulations (actually introduced in November) that stop prisoners receiving books and other small items in prison; authors including Philip Pullman have put the boot in. Meanwhile The Times reports that thousands of prisoners could mount compensation claims after being held for months and even years beyond their minimum sentence. An alliance of peers want Mr Grayling to speed up the release of prisoners serving "indeterminate sentences for public protection". Has the Justice Secretary over-reached himself? ENOUGH IMMIGRATION TUB-THUMPING
What will Ukip make of this? Tory MP Mark Field has created a group calling for calm in the immigration debate: Conservatives for Managed Migration.Is this a sensible attempt by the Tories to change the tone of the debate, and stop trying to "out-Ukip Ukip", as MPs concede is impossible? Or does it simply give Ukip more space to exploit voters' angst? Meanwhile it's worth noting John Harris's piece in the Guardian, on how Ukip is targetting the East of England, especially Lincolonshire and East Anglia. There's an interesting comment from Matthew Smith, Ukip's candidate in Great Yarmouth: "I don't talk about Europe at all," he says. "It's not on any of the election leaflets. Why is that an issue for people?" Ukip have decided to stage their autumn conference in Doncaster - not coincidentally, on the border of Ed Miliband's seat. CLEGG v FARAGE - BUT WHERE'S DAVE?
It's Clegg v Farage at 7pm tomorrow night. I look ahead to their debate in my column, explaining why some are frustrated that Mr Cameron isn't taking part and Tory MPs fear that it could be a "lose-lose" for the Conservatives: "Both parties depend for their success on taking votes off the Tories. Whichever one does well out of the debate, it will be at the expense of the Conservatives. Both parties depend for their success on taking votes off the Tories. Whichever one does well out of the debate, it will be at the expense of the Conservatives." Meanwhile Rachel Sylvester calls on the main parties to counter fear with a sense of progress and optimism. MITCHELL HAD HISTORY OF 'VERBAL AGGRESSION'
Some developments in the Andrew Mitchell case worth recording. The High Court yesterday heard that Mr Mitchell had "form or history" of "verbal aggression" against the police. The hearing was held ahead of full libel cases, which are unlikely to start before next year. The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter
Good morning. The Budget has helped the Tories but what we hadn't perhaps expected was that it would cause such trouble Labour. Ed Miliband's bizarre response has provoked an outbreak of scrutiny that is doing his party no favours. The Guardian has compounded the misery by splashing a letter from 19 "progressives" under the headline "Miliband told: don't play safe with manifesto". It should be pointed out that the letter, whose signatories include Lord Glasman, Neal Lawson, Patrick Diamond and Mark Ferguson is not directly critical of the leadership. It merely suggests that Mr Miliband is relying on Tory unpopularity to win the election. But its wider point chimes with the complaint heard more and more among anxious Labour folk, that Mr Miliband is relying on a few populist tactical plays that are not connected to a wider strategic narrative. Blighty in the Economist has some essential analysisof what it means.
The Budget demonstrated the problem: Mr Miliband was reduced to rehearsing well-worn criticisms of Bullingdon Tories but had nothing to say about pensions reform, help for savers and the other major changes announced by the Chancellor. The result, the Tories claim, is the weekend's polls showing the gap between the parties closed to a single point. In CCHQ they say it is unusual - and therefore significant - to get such a clear, immediate response to a Budget. The rest of the papers pick up the theme: Miliband under pressure say the Times and Telegraph, Labour all over the place on pensions in the FT. The Mail also picks up on a YouGov poll that has 41 per cent of respondents declaring the Labour leader to be "very weird" or "somewhat weird".
Of course, we could reverse the criticism and say that the Tories have shown signs of relying too much on Mr Miliband's inadequacies to carry them to victory next year. The Budget might remind them that what works is clear, compelling policies that speak to a wider vision of how the country should be run. But to judge by the way Labour is being put on the spot about its policy choices, we may look back on Mr Osborne's Budget not only as a turbocharger for Tory fortunes but also as a potent weapon against Mr Miliband. DAVE'S BOUNCE
The PM will proudly trumpet his pension reforms in a speech to the over-50s group Saga today, describing them as a "historic savings revolution" and accusing Labour of "patronising" pensioners. It's the latest sign of Dave moving onto the offensive after the success of last week's budget: it has settled the troops and created some neat new dividing lines with Labour that seem to have put Tory backbenchers - temporarily, at least - off friendly fire. And even Boris is firmly on side. In his Telegraph column, the Mayor of London says the reform was "Thatcherite in its elegance" and embodied Conservative values of "trusting people to run their own lives". In this climate, every narrowing poll will further add to the new-found Tory cheer - so perhaps it's time to stop obsessing over who will succeed Dave as party leader. DO WE NEED MORE TROOPS?
The Ukraine crisis provides a timely moment for the wisdom of the Government's defence cuts to be questioned. In The Telegraph, Richard Dannatt, the former chief of the general staff, makes the case that it's time for Britain to make a "military statement" and retain 3,000 soldiers in Germany in a reversal of planned defence cuts, "sending the signal that Britain takes its defence responsibilities seriously, not only on behalf of its citizens but on behalf of our EU and Nato allies, too". Lord Dannatt warns that diplomacy must be underpinned by "greater military capability" to be effective, citing recent crises like Ukraine and Syria. There have long been murmurings on the Tory Right - including from Philip Hammond's camp - that the defence cuts go further than advisable, and such voices may sense an opportunity to raise their discontent. But, given that the cuts have been signed and sealed, if not quite delivered, Lord Dannatt's suggestion would necessitate a significant, and politically problematic, U-turn. SHAPPS THE SCAPEGOAT
We learned over the weekend that George Osborne and Lynton Crosby signed off the notorious "beer n' bingo" poster and Mr Osborne's aides were involved in drawing it up. Grant Shapps has copped a lot of flack for tweeting it, but the suggestion is that he "took one for the team" and it would reek of scapegoating to dispense with him as party chairman over the incident. Tories may also reflect that Labour continuing to "bang on" about the poster is a sign that no other attacks on the Budget have stuck. THE RISE OF THE RED PRINCESStephen Kinnock, the son of Neil and Glenys and wife of Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, has been confirmed as Labour candidate for the safe seat of Aberavon in South Wales. Elizabeth Truss has complained about the rise of the "Red Princes" (Euan Blair and David Prescott could be next, while Will Straw has already been selected), saying "If you look at the Labour team we've got a husband and wife in the top team – we've got brothers in the Labour party as well". Miss Truss is demanding that attempts are made to "broaden it out beyond the usual suspects" and parties need to do more to help "people feel part of their local community … and aspire to enter Parliament". It's advice that all parties in Westminster would do well to heed. In the Mail,Dominic Lawson says that Labour's ruling dynasties have just as much social capital as Dave's Etonians. RURAL ENGLAND v THE TORIES
To pursue their house-building targets the Conservatives will have to contend with plenty more of this: the Campaign to Protect Rural England warns that 700,000 new homes are planned for the countryside in the next 20 years, including 200,000 that will be built in protected green belt land. There is electoral pressure too: many of these homes are in Conservative seats, and MPs are warning that radical house-building plans could coat the party votes in 13 months. Not that Nick Boles is backing down: he describes CPRE's report as "inaccurate, exaggerated and based on a spurious analysis of the facts." DOES THE NHS NEED MORE CASH?In the FT, Sir David Nicholson pops up with a grim reminder of how stretched the NHS is. The outgoing chief executive - he steps down this week - says that the NHS faces "a bridge too far" and needs another £2 billion to avoid being pushed into the red before the next general election, for the first time since 2006. Given how David Cameron has tied himself to the NHS, this poses a particular risk for him. But it's worth remembering that the NHS's "winter of discontent", which Labour were warning about for months, didn't materialise. The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim Wigmore. Follow Tim on Twitter DAILY POLL