Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Ukip spring will have to wait..

Good morning. He's bottled it. That will be the snap verdict of Nigel Farage's decision not to stand in Newark. "I'm a fighter, I'm a warrior," he laughs on Today, dismissing the charge. Arguably, the Ukip leader has made the right calculation. As he says he is not local, and he can read the numbers as well as any of us. He also acknowledges that if he lost, "the bubble would burst". Too right. The Tories are well entrenched in Newark, even after the harm done to the image of politics by Patrick Mercer. Ukip's prospects, even in a by-election, are not great. It's not really their turf. Mr Farage says that the best tactic is to select someone local who stands a chance. As Nottinghamshire man Ken Clarke said on Today, "whatever else Nigel is, he's not an idiot".

So has he bottled it? The Tories will want us to say so. They can make the argument that if he truly had the courage of his convictions, and really did think that Ukip is on the verge of making British political history - his line - then he should put his money where his mega-mouth is and lead from the front. Mr Farage's problem is that he chose not to stand in Eastleigh, and now he's ducked Newark. Some might start to wonder when he is going to put up. Ukip has been under intense pressure for weeks, and it is going to get worse. It suffers from having its candidates and members routinely exposed as unpleasant, its finances are under scrutiny, and Mr Farage knows that much - too much - rests on his shoulders. Mr Clarke used his Today interview to hammer the point about seriousness and who you want to govern. Expect more of that from the Tories. Mr Farage, to his credit, has moved swiftly to end the speculation. Newark suddenly becomes less interesting. The Ukip breakthrough at Westminster is no nearer. 
Tristram Hunt's answer to Michael Gove's reforms emerges today with the publication of David Blunkett's report on schools. The detail is on the front of the Guardian: "Labour vows to rub out Gove era in education". The central element a new breed of school commissioners who would enforce standards and deal with failing schools. Mr Blunkett imagines 40 to 80 directors of school standards in cities and groups of local authorities, answering the Labour complaint that Mr Gove has created 20,000 autonomous schools run from Whitehall. They would be appointed by local authorities from a shortlist drawn up by the Department for Education. According to the former Labour education secretary, his Tory successor presides over "an unmanageable Kafkaesque caricature freeing schools from everything except the secretary of state". Mr Gove will be glad to see the whites of his opponents eyes, and now has something to get stuck into. Happily for him, the government is today announcing a £2bn extension to its schools building program intended to give Mr Gove "a pre-election boost". As it happens I've considered Mr Gove's position in a blog on reshuffle prospects
Lynton Crosby could be in for an ear-bashing from Tory backbenchers attoday's meeting of the 1922 committee after David Cameron's no-show at the HS2 vote. For the PM not to vote when the result is a certainty is hardly novel, but with so many Tory MPs voting for the bill despite the concerns of their constituents, there is dismay at Mr Cameron's failure to show 'solidarity' with his backbench MPs.  Ephraim Hardcastle suggests that a date with Samantha Cameron may be to blame. 
"Independent Scotland 'will lose finance jobs'" is the business splash in today's paper, as the Centre for Economics and Business Research reveals new figures about the cost of independence. It may be, though, that the stark warnings being issued by government figures are not sufficient to revive Better Together's fortunes, even Danny Alexander joins the battle with a speech in Edinburgh. "People cast votes on major issues by reference to overarching narratives about autonomy, identity and prosperity," John Kay warns in today's FT, "A truth the wilting No campaign seems not to have grasped."
The management of Pfizer are in London to persuade everyone that taking over AstraZeneca is a great idea. George Osborne thinks it is but last night warned Ian Read, Pfizer's chief exec, that the £60bn bid will be scrutinised closely. The charm offensive is on the front of the FT. Vince Cable is sceptical, and politicians clearly fear the prospect of Pfizer closing down R&D capacity in the UK, and eliminating highly skilled jobs. "We are expecting them to show serious commitment to R&D and manufacturing in the UK". Mr Read phoned Mr Cable on Monday to reassure him, but the fact that Pfizer shut down its R&D operations in Kent in 2011 with no notice is not forgotten. The Government can hit Pfizer by withholding subsidies and tax breaks, but Labour has gone in another direction: Chuka Umunna announced Labour would consider enshrining in law powers for boards to block hostile foreign takeovers.
DEBT FREE IS THE WAY TO BEWhile Labour is still almost bankrupt and in hock to the unions, the Conservatives are set to become debt-free for the first time in their modern history. There's more to the rival pictures of the parties than the wagging tongues that these figures will suggest; it also means a Conservative machine in the pink of health as we head into the final year of the Parliament. Peter Dominiczak has the story.
Labour's expectations management in Newark not getting off to the best start:
Canvas today in Newark by my activists. Labour vote strong and growing, very few ukip, Tory vote unsure
Latest YouGov poll:
Con 32%, Lab 37%, LD 9%, UKIP 14%
In the Telegraph
Best of the rest
EDINBURGH: Danny Alexander speech on Scottish independence.
LONDON: Government review of gambling - including fixed-odds betting terminals - published by DCMS. 
0930 LONDON: Steve Webb at Work and Pensions Select Committee.
1400 LONDON:  Pakistan Prime Minister talks with David Cameron at 10 Downing Street.
1430 LONDON: Public Accounts Committee hearing on Royal Mail sale continues. Witnesses include UBS managing director James Robertson and BIS permanent secretary Martin Donnelly. 

1800 LONDON: Vince Cable panel discussion at Institute for Government.

Open for business..

Good morning. When David Cameron and George Osborne proclaim that Britain is open for business, does that include standing by and holding the door while an American giant helps itself to one of this country's national champions? Yesterday we had fun watching France scramble to prevent GE buying Alstom, then along came Pfizer with its £60bn mega-bid bid for AstraZeneca. The snap response from No 10 was "help yourself", or words to that effect: Britain is committed to nurturing an open economy, and that means keeping out of the market. But wise heads who recall the rows over Cadbury and Boots will keep an eye on the reaction this morning. "This time our spineless politicians must step in", says Alex Brummer in the Mail. "Battle for national champions" is the FT splash, bringing together the French and British cases. The Times leader is "Open for business", and contrasts the emotional political reactions in France to the calm among politicians here. Our business leader points out that decisions are ultimately for shareholders, not Governments. The FT cautions ministers that they mustn't allow all to be decided by crude tax arbitrage. "The government cannot afford to pursue laissez fairer at all costs…Broader national interests are at stake".
Chuka Umunna has rightly raised questions about potential risk to Britain's R&D base if Pfizer closes facilities in the pursuit of savings. Ian Read, the chief exec, has said he can't rule out jobs cuts as a result of the takeover. More interesting is Vince Cable's stress on his warning to Mr Read about securing high-skilled jobs and long-term investment. It is possible to imagine him saying more, not least if there is the slightest hint that the country's scientific base is in danger. That could make things interesting inside the Coalition. 
Back to the open door then. The Treasury argue that the takeover, if it goes ahead, is a vote of confidence in the UK, and a sign of success for the Chancellor's tax policy. Pfizer will keep the company's HQ in New York but will domicile it in the UK for tax purposes. It wants to lower its overall tax liability, and, according to the FT, wants to bring its headline tax rate form 27pc down to the 21pc AstraZeneca pays in London. Mr Osborne has cut corporation tax to 21pc here, whereas it is 35pc in the US. President Obama is said to be troubled that the American tax code encourages companies to move overseas, a complaint that was a familiar one here not so long ago. The Treasury point out that other companies are doing the same. In this case, we "lose" a national champion, but gain a new corporate taxpayer. Some might find this distasteful. Labour will doubtless talk of the "race to the bottom". The trick for Mr Osborne will be to explain why the advantage to the UK lies not in protecting its corporate giants, but making the UK the place companies want to be. 
"The more people stay together, the happier they'll be." That's Billy Connolly's verdict on the independence referendum ("The Big Yin wants Scotland to stay in" is the page 3 lead in the Times"), in a rather more positive spin on the union than Better Together has thus far managed. Yes as Jeremy Warner writes in his column today, the challenges of independence would be severe; a decade on, Scotland could "look much more like Greece than Norway", but, as Jeremy also notes, to regard the Scots as being sold a pipe dream by Alex Salmond is wrong - and patronising to boot. But there's a real sense of national identity triumphing over economic reality. That's not being helped by the invisibility of certain Labour figures. Douglas Alexander in particular is being singled out by critics of the Labour effort as conspicuously absent; while William Hague is fighting a rearguard action against Mr Salmond's claims on Scotland's EU membership, where is his shadow?  
Not everyone yearns for a Commons return for Boris Johnson. The FT's leader counsels that the Mayor linger a little longer in London. Leading the national capital is too big a job for an MP, the FT warns, and reminds Mr Johnson of the fate of some of the other former frontrunners. "The Tory party’s history is studded with heir apparents," the pink paper sighs, "who failed to seize the crown". That's something that will be all-too-clear in Boris' mind. He is now certain not to be the first Johnson in Downing Street.  “A little piece of me dies, but otherwise I rejoice in his success," the Mayor said, not of the PM, but his brother, Jo, in aninterview with Total Politics
HS2 passed its second reading by a heavy margin, with 452 ayes to just 41 for the noes, with David Cameron noted for his absence from the vote. Cheryl Gillian's amendment did slightly better,being defeated by 451 ayes to 50 noes. So it's full speed ahead for HS2, although there may be a few leaves on the line just yet.  35 Tory MPs rebelled on the night, while a further 47 missed the vote or abstained. The numbers are rather higher, though, because, thanks to Labour's support, the Whips' Office were able to take a relatively relaxed attitude to rebels and abstentions. That a way out was found for Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Grieve and others has caused consternation amongst some backbenchers, who note that Jesse Norman was fired from the policy board for abstaining on the Syria vote. Rather more worrying for Number 10 is David Lidington's resignation threat, which makes today's front page and the inside lead of the Daily Mirror. Mr Lidington wants a tunnel to extend through the whole of the Chilterns, which would send costs rising, potentially undermining cross-party support for the line. Mr Cameron's absence from the vote has been jumped on by Labour.  A source said: "this shows a failure to lead following a failure to even try to quell an open rebellion".
Ephraim Hardcastle reports that David Davis is hosting a reception this evening for the recently-acquitted Nigel Evans. It's not the first such soiree that Mr Davis has thrown; he did the same for Nadine Dorries after her trip down under for I'm A Celebrity, and continues to be a cheerleader for Andrew Mitchell, whose tenure at the Whip's Office came to an abrupt end over Plebgate  What is Mr Davis up to? "He  likes to keep in with backbenchers, but mainly it's about agitating Cameron." explains a colleague. It's Nick Clegg who should really be worried - the Independent' s poll of polls puts them on their lowest share ever, and you know what they say about old men in a hurry...
Growth is back! Not just to Britain, but also to the Cameron family garden. David Cameron is converting some of the farmland in his Oxfordshire home into a garden, Sebastian Shakespeare reveals. But don't worry; the PM will still find time to sit back and chillax: he's invested in a ride-on lawnmower similar to the one preferred by the Duchess of Cambridge's father, Michael Middleton. 
"Cynicism verging on nihilism",  Janan Ganesh writes in today's FT, "is the closest thing modern Britain has to a national ideology." That can put the PM, who, as I say in my column today, has long used optimism as his calling card, out of step with the mood of today's angry times and the politics of "sod it". Small wonder that some Tories would nod along to Steve Richards in today's Independent, who suggests that a narrow loss, and a new leader, would be the best way forward for the Conservatives. But a victory for Ed Miliband's Brownite politics of division, assisted by the smallminded nationalism of Messrs Salmond and Farage, would be bad for Britain. 
"Cross-party campaign to brand Ukip as racist" is the Guardian splash today. But is insulting Ukip the best way to defeat them? Jacqui Smith isn't convinced. Writing for Progress, the Blairite pressure group, the former Home Secretary asks if the political class has forgotten the lesson of  'Bigot-gate'. "Telling them they are wrong – and worse, closet racists – is unlikely to win their support." she notes.
THE SAJID JAVID SHOWThat a Conservative rising star should be praised by in the leader column of the Daily Mail is almost to be expected; particularly when that Conservative speaks so eloquently on aspiration, getting on and rewarding success as Sajid Javid. Getting Polly Toynbe on side, however, is a measure of how well Mr Javid is doing in his post. He has mastered his brief remarkably quickly and avoided the bear traps that new arts ministers often blunder into, much to the delight of much of the arts lobby, who may come to cheer the resignation of Maria Miller louder than most.
Even the backroom plotting happens on Twitter nowadays:
@Mike_Fabricant: Meanwhile, I have been busy organising tellers etc for the NO vote on #HS2 tonight.(Never thought I would have to do this against own Party)
Latest YouGov poll:
Con 32%, Lab 37%, LD 10%, UKIP 15%
In the Telegraph
Best of the rest
Paul Waugh and Sam Macrory - Boris Johnson: Cities slicker

WALES: The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to visit Wales.
0930 LONDON: Vince Cable at Business, Innovation and Skills committee hearing on Royal Mail. The Business Secretary will give evidence along with other witnesses including Minister of State Michael Fallon, Mark Russell of the Shareholder Executive and Lazard chief executive William Rucker. Room 15, Palace of Westminster.
1130 LONDON: Stop HS2 demonstrators protest opposite Houses of Parliament.
1430 LONDON:  Defence Select Committee hearing on treatment of casualties.
1515 LONDON: Public Accounts Committee hearing on Royal Mail sale.


Good morning. It's a big moment in the Commons today. MPs will vote to give the go-ahead to HS2, endorsing the principle of high speed rail to the North of the country. The focus this morning is on the scale of any rebellion - the BBC says 30 Tories will vote against, more than rebelled over the paving Bill. Yet to judge by the papers, the rebellion hasn't got much momentum behind it: coverage is thin, and there's no sense of drama about it, or of any personal political difficulty for David Cameron. True, some of those lined up against HS2 may be motivated by something other than a passion against fast trains, but this doesn't feel like a test of Dave. In fact, it feels as if it's one of those issues where the numbers mean it's safe to rebel.
Labour's support, consolidated by Mary Creagh over the weekend, means the legislation will receive its Second Reading and head into its committee where it will be subject to many petititons from local authorities and other bodies objecting to the route and the idea. The Government remains anxious to get the process right and avoid any risks, so has given up on the hope of getting it done this Parliament. With the May elections, the Scotland referendum, and party conferences, there isn't nearly enough time. Efforts have been made to give Labour access to all the information it needs. Those on the government side congratulate themselves that Ed Balls has been won over by Sir David Higgins, the new HS2 boss, and that Labour's backing has been secured and will ensure HS2 goes ahead whatever the outcome of the general election. Indeed, the amount of scrutiny HS2 will receive compared to, say, the M40, is striking. One thing is certain: this scheme isn't being rushed.
It's also striking that the language has been modulated considerably by Patrick McLoughlin, who refuses to criticise those along the route who object as nimbys. Instead, he has tried to mitigate the effects where possible, and avoid being dismissive. Economic arguments being raised against it are also being rejected: the IEA for example has attacked HS2, but the Government points out that back in the day the IEA also objected to Crossrail, and got its numbers wrong. Britain has become quite adept at delivering ambitious infrastructure projects. The Olympics, obviously, Crossrail, St Pancras and King's Cross refurbishments, or - more pertinently - the transformative effect of HS1 on connecting remote Kent economically to the capital. We may not notice it, but today will prove to be a for more significant day in British history than we realise. I say British: ministers might consider whether a clear statement on the prospects for pushing HS2 to Scotland sooner might help in September.  
First Nigel Farage, now Alex Salmond. Just what is it that Britain's demagogues see in the Russian autocrat? Interviewed by Alastair Campbell in this month's GQ, Mr Salmond said of Vladimir Putin: "he's restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing". The interview was conducted before the Crimean 'referendum' that rubber-stamped the Russian invasion, but after the initial incursion that had already caused international alarm (Ben Riley-Smith has the story).  It opens up a second front for the No campaign; just what sort of foreign policy does Mr Salmond imagine for an independent Scotland? The remarks come just as the First Minister has come under fire from William Hague, who has written to Mr Salmond ahead of his much-publicised speech in Bruges. Mr Salmond claims that an independent Scotland could join the European Union quickly and painlessly under Article 28 - which allows treaty changes by "common accord" rather than unanimous vote. Mr Hague has written to ask, not unreasonably, which European member states, if any, support Mr Salmond's wizard wheeze. Demolishing the nationalist myth of a quick path to Europe could be devastating to the separatist campaign.
"The week that Ukip has just endured would finish off most political parties," writes Harry Wallop in today's paper. It has been another error-strewn week for Nigel Farage's party, from the amusing - Patrick O'Flynn, the party's press supremo, accidentally sent an expletive-laden text to its subject, the Times journalist Billy Kenber - to the rather more serious problems shown by its candidate selection. As Harry notes, the party appears not only to harbour the "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" of David Cameron's famous description, but a series of  "very much nastier pieces of work".   William Henwood, a Ukip council candidate, is the latest to hit the headlines, by responding to the comedian Lenny Henry's call for greater diversity in broadcasting by suggesting he  "go and live in a black country". That comes after last week's difficulties with Andre Lampitt and Mr Farage's difficult interview with Nick Robinson about his employment of his German wife as his secretary. Despite all this, the party is doing better in the polls than it has in its entire history (as the Guardian says on their front page). the party looks increasingly likely to come top in the Euro elections on the 22nd of May. Harry explains that Ukip's appeal has to be understood as a reaction to its populism, not its policies - as Mr Farage himself told the Guardian's Decca Aitkenhead on Saturday, they have very few -  or personnel. Attacks on either - such asJeremy Hunt's broadside against the party's members as "racist" and "un-British", which makes the second page of today's paper and page four of the Mail - tend to fall flat. As the Mail's leader says today, if the Westminster parties want to reel in Ukip, they "should try heeding voters’ wishes on such issues as uncontrolled immigration, human rights madness and the relentless surrender of our sovereignty to Brussels".
The long-term unemployed will have to scrub memorials, clean up monuments and help out at community and city farms or lose their benefits under the government's new Help to Work scheme. The scheme will target those who have been unemployed for at least three years; people who Esther McVey, the Minister for Employment, described on the Today programme as "the hardest to help". Jonathan Portes, a former chief economist at the DWP, speaking just before Miss McVey, suggested that the pilot's effects were slight. It's all part of the Tory message about helping people to get on and up: small wonder that the words "long-term economic plan" were used both by the PM when the scheme was announced and by Miss McVey on the radio this morning.
Frustration is growing with Boris Johnson. Asked by BBC Radio 5 Live if he intended to keep "fudging" the question of his Commons return, Mr Johnson replied: "Yes.".  It's an answer only the Mayor could get away with giving, and that's partly why the party leadership wants him back on board for the difficult task of defanging Nigel Farage and defeating Ed Miliband. Even Mr Johnson's supply of goodwill is not limitless, however. As Andrew Rawnsley observed over the weekend, there are some Tories "who are simply becoming tired with and frustrated by the whole soap opera". There are still plenty of associations who would love to have him, as shown by the eagerness to welcome him to Louth and Horncastle as well as Sir George Young's seat in North West Hampshire. It may come down to, Rawnsley argues, the question of whether or not Boris truly believes that Cameron will win.  John Rentoul, meanwhile,detects a canny resignation to David Cameron's wooing of Mr Johnson; "Cameron is making his peace with Johnson as Tony Blair did with Gordon Brown just before the 2005 election."
"Labour to ambush 'zombie government'" says page 2 of the Financial Times. Labour is planning a series of ambushes to keep Coalition ministers and MPs in the Commons and away from the campaign, but they've fallen foul of an ambush of their own. Labour are "too middle-class" to win over Ukip voters,  warns Lord Maurice Glasman, a key figure within the party's "Blue Labour" tendency. Lord Glasman was an influential guru in the early phase of Mr Miliband's leadership but fell out of favour for criticising the Leader of the Opposition for 'lacking energy'. Also making waves in today's Times is Jessica Asato, the former head of the Blairite pressure group Progress and now Chair of the Fabian Society. Ms Asato is also the PPC for Norwich North; target 67 on Labour's target list and the seat that Labour would have to carry to have a majority of one. She warns that not enough has been done to rebuild Labour's economic credibility. 
That will bring a smile to Nick Clegg, who wants to remain as Deputy Prime Minister for the rest of the decade - regardless of whether it is with David Cameron or Ed Miliband. He told Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times that he wanted to add "heart" to the Conservatives and "spine" to Labour; but he'll have to survive as leader of the Lib Dems first. A private briefing of the Liberal Democrat high command revealed that the party could be completely wiped out in the European election. The Liberals have form as far as disposing of leaders is concerned, and time is running out for Vince Cabble, the Business Secretary, to get the top job. If Mr Clegg's enemies within weren't bad enough, he was branded a "self-obsessed, revolting character" by Dominic Cummings, a former Gove spad, and faces an uphill battle to be included in the television debates. The DPM told the FT he struggles "to think of an even half-respectable excuse the Conservatives could come up with" to prevent a repeat of the debates.
CUT RED TAPE TO KICKSTART GROWTH, CPS SAYS"Cut taxes and red tape" is our splash today. Britain is not even amongst the top ten countries for entrepreneurs, a Centre for Policy Studies report finds. Growth is returning, but thoughts are turning to the best way to help people feel the benefits and blunt Ed Miliband's cost-of-living campaign. A package of tax cuts and deregulation could prove just the ticket.
A dangling modifier left the PM exposed to wags online:
@David_Cameron: It's unacceptable there's a loophole allowing paedophile "training manuals", that's why I want to protect children by making them illegal.
Latest YouGov poll:
Con 31%, Lab 36%, LD 9%, UKIP 15%
In the Telegraph
Best of the rest

BOURNEMOUTH: Labour leader Ed Miliband hosts shadow cabinet meeting. He will be joined by most of his top team in the afternoon. He will then lead a public meeting in the North Lanarkshire area.
1130 LONDON: Andy Coulson's cross-examination by the prosecution as the hacking trial continues.
1400 LONDON: Stop HS2 demonstrators protest opposite Houses of Parliament.
1430 LONDON: Home Office questions.
1515 LONDON: Public Accounts Committee hearing on Royal Mail sale.
2100 LONDON: Strike action begins on London's Underground.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The paucity of Labour..

“You don’t like me and you don’t trust my party. But there are enough of you who tribally hate the Conservatives, and are either always-Labour or once-Lib Dem. I’ve banked your votes. And the unfairness of the constituency boundaries gives me a huge advantage – thanks for vetoing that reform, Nick! All I need are a few tens of thousand extra voters, and I’ll win! How’s that for a Hampstead policy wonk?”
He doesn’t say this out loud. But it’s surely his strategy. Because his retail offers for those floating voters are eye-catching: cheaper gas bills, cheaper university fees, the renationalisation of the railways. Never mind that each of these policies is intellectual nonsense which, if implemented, would probably have the opposite impact to that intended. They are attention-grabbing and that might be enough..

Graeme Archer on Miliband's 'retail offer'

Friday, 25 April 2014

Clegg wades in..

Good morning. Someone needs to ask Nick Clegg the obvious follow up to his statement on the case for disestablishment of the Church: will it be a Lib Dem manifesto promise next year, and will it be one of his red lines in negotiations for a Coalition Mk II is the need arises? Presumably, the answer would be no (apologies if it turns out it has been party policy for ages). Imagine though if it was. 'Coalition split on role of the Church' says the Times splash, though can it really be split on something that isn't in its agreement. For the second time in a week, we see what happens when a political leader dares to pronounce on matters of faith.  
Mr Clegg is an atheist who happens to be Lord President of the Council as well as Deputy Prime Minister, which means he oversees Her Majesty's Privy Council. As our splash reminds us, privy councillors swear an oath to "Almighty God" in which they promise not to allow anything to be done against the Queen's "person, honour, crown or dignity royal". On LBC yesterday, from where we are increasingly governed (whatever happened to that place on the river, Gothic revival, lots of panelling, green benches?), Mr Clegg said disestablishment would allow the Church to "thrive" because it would no longer be "inhibited" by its official position. Dave, unsurprisingly, said it wasn't Tory policy and wouldn't happen (of course not, it's not in the agreement etc).
It's Friday, so I'll keep this short. Mr  Cameron spoke about his faith and the place of Christianity in Britain the other day, and caused a stir. Mr Clegg, a man of no faith, has also opined on the formalised role of Christianity, and said it should end. That will cause ructions. In both cases, I suspect, the reaction will be a degree of unease at the casual way both politicians have waded in. Mr Cameron has been taken to task (by Charles Moore most notably) for not giving enough thought to the meaning and place of marriage when he pushed through same sex marriages. Likewise, Mr Clegg appears to have not troubled overmuch with what disestablishment might mean. What we might consider today, as we contemplate these supposedly benign and well-intentioned sallies on the place of faith and religion, is that we have become casual about our Christianity and its place in our society, and therefore oblivious to what changes on this scale might mean. Absent-mindedly pull one loose thread, and far more unravels.
'As pieces of political spin go, it was up there with the best,' notes Ollie Wright in an astute column in the Independent today. Yesterday, the Today Programme revealed that Labour was considering ending its affliation with the Co-op Bank; the picture that is beginning to emerge is rather different.  Rather than Labour seeking to free itself from the ailing Co-op, it was in fact the troubled bank that decided it wanted to end its relationship with Labour. A source at the Co-op told Wright: 'We are not looking at big organisations anymore. We are looking to move non-core customers elsewhere.' The bigger fear for Labour though, is not having to find another home for its debt, but the probable end of its steady stream of donations from the Co-operative Group. It's worth reading between the lines of George Eaton's piece for the New Statesman last night. In addition to the likely loss of donations from the Co-operative Group, George identifies two further 'black clouds' on Labour's horizon. The first, that Ed Miliband's party reforms will result in smaller amounts of money from the trade unions, something even the most optimistic of Labour partisans are forced to concede is a certainty. The second is the distinctly likely possibility that Labour will be office after 2015, and with it, lose its access to 'Short money'. 'A lot of people know their jobs are on the line if we win,' one Labour source told Eaton. Labour's financial position looks even more perilous if you examine their mooted new bankers at the Unity Trust Bank. As the Mail notes, its  board members include Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers Union and Vicky Bryce, a senior official at the hardline RMT union, while its president, Dave Prentis, is the general secretary of Unison, the country's largest public sector union. The spin isn't great for Labour in the short term but the longer term problem is rather deeper; in the event of a Labour government or Labour-led coalition, Ed Miliband would be ever more reliant on cash injections from public sector unions at the same time as he is grappling with Britain's budget deficit. 

Boris Johnson is 'Britain's first quantum politician', James Kirkup wrote yesterday. As long as the Mayor of London keeps schtum about his plans in 2015, his parliamentary ambitions, like Schroedinger's famous cat, are both dead and alive. As James noted, "sooner or later, though, the box will be opened". That day may have come a little bit closer yesterday. During an interview with BBC Radio Berkshire, David Cameron gave his strongest endorsement yet to Mr Johnson's hopes of returning to the Commons. Asked if Mr Johnson would be the candidate in North West Hampshire, a rock solid Tory seat where the Chief Whip, George Young, is standing down, the PM replied: “Obviously it is up to North West Hampshire and it's up to Boris."  He added: 'As a manager as it were I want all my star players on the field. And Boris is a star player.' In some ways, this is something of a non-event; Mr Cameron was in Hampshire, was asked about the seat and about Boris, and gave the only answer possible, which was to defer to the association. But the accompanying praise gives it a strong signal of the PM's blessing, leaving Johnson with the momentum. The question now is whether or not he truly wants to return to Parliament; as Rafael Behr notes in today's Times, 'the freewheeling style that gives him celebrity kudos as mayor made him a scandal-prone liability in Michael Howard’s shadow cabinet.'.LABOUR JOINS THE BATTLE
You wait ages for a Labour heavyweight, and three turn up at once. Labour are out in force in Scotland today, as Ed Miliband kicks off a two-day tour of the country to rally Scottish Labour supporters to the cause of the Union, Yvette Cooper is back in Inverness - the town she was born in - while Chuka Umunna will visit Scottish business. The entire Shadow Cabinet will meet today in Glasgow. It seems that Labour is finally taking the threat to the Union seriously, but there are still mutterings about the lack of engagement from Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy, John Reid and the other senior Scots who should be available. They should know better than anyone how quickly Alex Salmond can go from losing to leading, after all. The Labour blitz should be a shot in the arm to the Better Together campaign although it may not be as smooth a ride as Labour hopes. As Alison Rowat observes in the Herald, "goodwill towards Labour is running perilously low" north of the border.  Don't forget how we got here in the first place; because Scottish Labour suffered an unforeseen thumping at the hands of Mr. Salmond, something that Scottish Labour still has yet to fully come to terms with. As the FT says, part of Mr Miliband's job in Scotland is to rebuild a machine that once swept all before it but has since fallen into a state of disrepair.  As in England, Mr Miliband's challenge is to look like a Prime Minister in waiting, as the Scotsman remarks in their leader, the SNP's warning that a No vote may result in perpetual Tory government is as much a rebuke of the Leader of the Opposition as it is of David Cameron. The danger for Labour is that, while fighting to save Scotland, it does damage to its standing down south; that the Independent's front page lead is 'Labour will veer left in a bid to save the Union' is an example of the sort of coverage Labour would do best to avoid. The Mirror's coverage is an example of the worst of all worlds; in amidst the briefing about Labour's pledge on zero-hours contracts, the battle to save the Union has all but been lost. Some within Better Together remain bullish despite the difficulties of the last few weeks; as John Curtice explains in the Independent, whether or not the referendum is heading for a photo finish or the Yes campaign is dead in the water depends very much on which pollster you believe. "Even so," Curtice writes, "that could still mean that Scotland is set to have an unusually hot and sticky political summer."
Nick Clegg has kicked off the Liberals' Euro-election campaign. He's sticking to his guns on Europe; despite his humbling in the debates with Mr Farage, even the lowly 27% he scored in that second debate is still a rather better score than the 8% the Lib Dems are polling today.  But it's Mrs Clegg who gets the plaudits in this thoughtful piece by Anne Perkins.
Ukip are in the soup again. Andre Lampitt, the star of their latest party political broadcast, has been suspended from the party for tweets (now deleted, with the picture above appearing courtesy of the eagle-eyed snappers at the Guardian) that, amongst other things, claimed Ed Miliband was "not British", that Nigerians were bad people, and that Islam was a Satanic religion. The response, as you can imagine, is extremely unfavourable to Ukip, but it's the coverage in the Sun and the Mail that will really hurt Mr Farage. "Vile tweets of Farage's TV Ad Star"  says the Sun. "Star of Ukip's election ad says Islam is evil and Africans should kill themselves" is the Mail headline alongside a picture of Mr Lampitt. On the one hand, it shows that Ukip's operation is at least nimble enough to suspend a troublesome member while Labour are still patting themselves on the back about their rapid rebuttal unit. On the other, it continues the question of whether or not the party can stand up to any sort of scrutiny as voters' minds turn to the question of who to vote for. 

...are due, to Ed Balls for passing his Grade 3 Piano Exam with merit! "Rachmaninoff soon!" his Labour predecessor, Denis Healey,tweeted. Congratulations also to Charles Moore; his biography of Margaret Thatcher has been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. You can read all his colums here.
Tracey Crouch was feeling blue:
@TraceyCrouch: Weird evening. Had travel vaccinations. Within 45 mins I had a fever, ached like never before & bad headache. Fell asleep & now feel fine!
Latest YouGov poll:
Con 32%, Lab 38%, LD 8%, UKIP 14%
In the Telegraph
Fraser Nelson - Social media is now the biggest jihadi training camp of them all
Isabel Hardman- Why the Tories care more about bins than about Brussels
James Kirkup - Boris Johnson is a cat in a box
Telegraph View - A Christian country in the best sense
Best of the rest

Rafael Behr - Does Boris belong in the zombie parliament?
Anne Perkins - Miriam Gonzalez Durantez: the Michelle Obama of the coalition
Alison Rowat  - Labour must rebuild trust if they want to save Union
Oliver Wright  - Labour fears loss of Co-op's £1m gift, not its loan
GLASGOW: Labour leader Ed Miliband hosts shadow cabinet meeting. He will be joined by most of his top team in the afternoon. He will then lead a public meeting in the North Lanarkshire area.
1000 EDINBURGH: Memorial service for Margo MacDonald. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

New confidence..

Good morning. Dave and George's joint appearance yesterday heralds a new-found confidence in CCHQ. Rather than worrying about being two posh boys, the PM and Chancellor can present themselves as the pair who have salvaged the economy - and leave the public to make the comparisons with the two Eds. Mr Osborne said: "We are an economic team led by a very strong Prime Minister and we set out to the country four years ago the difficult decisions that we had to take as a country together and explain to people what those decisions were." Nothing particularly surprising in that, perhaps, but the significance is that the Conservatives think they have got Labour on the run over the economy. The Tories think that, after years of their economic strategy being relentlessly attacked, now it's payback time. Hence the first joint appearance of the PM and Chancellor for four years.
But the Tory concern is whether this is all translating into poll numbers. A new YouGov poll for The Sun shows the Tories trailing Labour by three points: the gap is closing but, not at the pace that the Conservatives would like, especially after you factor in the automatic seven or so points lead that labour gets from its boundary advantage. Comfort comes from the fact that Labour isn't on the 40-plus it needs to be sure, and the gap is close to the margin of error - the touching distance Lynton Crosby is looking for. In the European elections it's all rather different: The Sun's new poll has the Tories in third on 22 per cent, and Ukip on course to pip Labour on May 22. It is in this context that the papers view Dave's St George's Day message. The PM said that "St George has been England's patron saint since 1350. But for too long, his feast day - England's national day - has been overlooked." To the Guardian this only means one thing: a "play for Ukip voters".
At least the Conservatives' expectation management has been a triumph: no one will be remotely surprised if the party comes third. Labour's not-so-secret election tactic - watching Tory backbenchers drag the party on a wild goose chase after the Ukip vote - might therefore be avoided. It has become a cliche to expect the Conservatives to turn on self-destruct mode for a few months after the European elections; should they resist the urge, they may find the electoral landscape rather to their liking. Pot shots at the Tories in elections that the public don't really care for are one thing; the Conservatives will hope that handing the keys back to the guys who crashed the car is quite another.
His party may be yet to enjoy much of a polling boost from the economic good news, but Mr Osborne's personal fortunes are a rather different matter: his ratings are remarkably high for a suppossed arch axeman. The speed of his political recovery must surely qualify as one of the fastest on record. His team may deny it, but there will be interest in the Boris story in The Mail, and the suggestion that the Mayor of London will return as an MP next year (though he better make up his mind quick - vacant seats are fast running out). Is it a sign that Boris thinks the Tories are going to win, and wants to be a part of it?
Gordon Brown's five months to save the Union began yesterday. The former PM outline five "big positives" that Scotland gets from being part of the UK, and said that the "propaganda value" of the SNP blaming Westminster for everything could only go so far. What's the verdict? Our leader says that Mr Brown's "passion" is "something that has sometimes been missing from the pro-Union cause." The Guardian says that an old PM stepping out of retirement could be just the man to remind the Scots of the questions over their pensions, noting that, North of the border, "the Brown record at the ballot box is not at all bad. In 2010, which is the last time that Scots voted for the parliament whose future they are now debating, rather more of them voted for Mr Brown's Labour party than had backed that of Tony Blair in 2005." In a similar vein, Alan Cochrane writes that "the key to the referendum is winning over Labour voters – those very people in West Central Scotland who still reckon that Mr Brown got a raw deal from the British electorate in 2010." It's perhaps a mark of the state of the Better Together campaign that even the Mail says that Mr Brown's speech was a "timely intervention", though its leader can't resist saying "What a pity it has taken him until now to realise just how important pensions are."
Nigel Farage had a rather tricky interview with Nick Robinson yesterday, as Nick reflects in his blog. Mr Farage got himself in rather a tangle talking about his German wife's role as his secretary: "nobody else could do that job," he said. The backlash against the Ukip posters has continued; the party's leader says this is just another example of the Westminster elite at its worst, writing in his Indy column that "Calling Ukip’s posters ‘racist’ is yet another example of shameful Westminster evasion". Is Mr Farage over-reaching himself? Even if the European elections go well for Ukip, does the party have the ability to withstand the scrutiny that will come in the next 12 months?
The Indy leads with Labour's preparations for a dirty war against the well-oiled Tory spin machine. Lynton Crosby was brought in by CCHQ months ago and is now settled in to the job. Labour have finally picked up the pace. Following the announcement of their American hire - David Axelrod - it's now reported that Labour are setting up an 'attack unit' to hit back at Tory attempts to target Ed Miliband as 'weak' or 'weird'. Whilst bracing themselves for a personalised election campaign with echoes of the attacks on Neil Kinnock in 1992 Labour's party officials insist this new, hard line strategy, will not 'match smear with smear' or wage 'class war' on Cameron and Osborne.
Sajid Javid, who some have criticised for lacking a Denis Healey style "hinterland", made the most of his new role last night with a trip to the theatre, as The Times Diary records. On the eve of William Shakespeare's 450th birthday the new Culture Secretary took Nadhim Zahawi to see Hamlet at the Globe. Perhaps Mr Javid was seeking some advice from the Dane; if things get tough he will do well to remember that "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Tipped for the top, let's hope "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" don't cause him too much trouble.
We are still "doing God". Following yesterday's letter from "The Atheists" two ministers have supported Dave's notion that we are a "Christian country". Dominic Grieve, Attorney General (and Patron of the Christian Fellowship) weighs in by arguing that "atheism hasn’t made much progress in Britain" because "our state, its ethics and our society are underpinned by Christian values." IDS agrees, calling those who deny Britain's latent Christianity "absurd".
Vince Cable has popped up on the Guardian's front page (and page two of the FT) after issuing a "stark warning" to the 100 biggest UK listed companies about the damage big pay deals can have on their image, ahead of Barclays' annual meeting today. The Business Secretary said that "there is now an opportunity for companies to make peace with the public". In his letter to Britain's leading boardrooms Vince urged them to crack down on bonuses in order to restore public trust and avert fresh legislation to limit executive pay which he has called "extraordinarily large". Mr Cable rounded up: "At a time when every part of the economy is striving to get more from less, I hope you find yourselves animated by the same spirit." Vince's ability to take pot shots at the City remains unrivalled. The truth, though, is no one in the Coalition takes much notice anymore.
A new coalition battle is brewing, this time over taxpayer subsidisation of gun licences. Mr Cameron - a pheasant shooter and deer stalker, as the Guardian likes to remind us - allegedly intervened back in December to stop a rise in the cost of gun licences after Owen Paterson objected to a proposed hike. Licence costs have been frozen at £50 since 2001 despite it costing the police £196 to issue one. Norman Baker, who has responsibility for shotgun certificates, questions why police should "subsidise the issuing of licences for firearms" and describes the current stance as "difficult to justify".
The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter
Chris Heaton-Harris is at it again:
@chhcalling: A vandal has smeared luggage at Heathrow with Vaseline. Unfortunately the Police let the culprit slip away and have dropped the case.
Latest YouGov poll:
Con 34%, Lab 37%, LD 10%, UKIP 12%
In the Telegraph
Alan Cochrane - Panicked Tories are risking the UK’s future
Mary Riddell - Pastor Cameron has played his hand - now it’s over to Dr Miliband
Peter Oborne & Anne Williams - Honest work can't put a roof over people's heads
Telegraph View - Non-political voices need to argue to save the Union
Best of the rest
Steve Richards - David Cameron and Ed Miliband don't matter as much as they think
Nigel Farage - Calling Ukip’s posters ‘racist’ is yet another example of shameful Westminster evasion
Paul Collier - Beware the impact of a Scottish oil grab
ADELAIDE: Duke and Duchess of Cambridge tour New Zealand and Australia.
0730 LONDON: St George's flag flying over 10 Downing Street

1000 LONDON: Andy Coulson evidence to continue at the phone hacking trial. The Old Bailey