Brick by brick, we’re tearing down the big state

Last year, in these pages, I set out my vision for improving the quality of our public services. It’s simple. I want us to end once and for all the closed state monopoly where central government decides what you get, and how you get it. In its place, I want truly open public services, where people can choose the hospitals and schools they go to, with the right information at their fingertips to make that choice; where different providers, from the private and voluntary sectors, can come in and offer new services that people can access free; where funding is directed to helping the most disadvantaged; and where these services are truly accountable to local people, not to politicians or bureaucrats in Whitehall.

Our public servants work incredibly hard, and yet not enough people get the great service they have paid for and have a right to expect. I want to bring to everyone the choice and standards that the best provide. That means not just a change in structures but a genuine culture shift that changes the attitude of public service providers to make them more responsive to users, and makes users feel truly empowered.

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The Conservative Party can save Cameron, but only if he lets it

For many governments there comes a desperately sad moment after which nothing is ever quite the same again, when trust and confidence evaporates and all that remains is a long battle of attrition.

For Harold Wilson, that moment struck with the devaluation crisis of 1967; for John Major, it was Black Wednesday in 1992. Tony Blair’s came with the realisation that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction and that his casus belli for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a lie.

There is now a strong possibility that historians will identify the events of the past two weeks – the lethal combination of George Osborne’s shambolic Budget with the shocking revelation that access to the Prime Minister and government policy is up for sale – as the climacteric of the Cameron/Clegg Coalition.

There are already signs of a shift in the political landscape, just as there were after the events of 1992 and 2003. David Cameron’s claim that his Government represents the interests of Britain as a whole, so movingly articulated in the early days, now feels baseless and cynical, replaced by the growing perception that he represents nothing more than a tiny coterie of rich and privileged men. Meanwhile, Labour has started to show clear gains in the polls.

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Israel, Palestine and the anti-Semitism of the Left

Nick Cohen has a characteristically good article on “anti-Semitism of the Left” in the April edition of Standpoint. The argument he advances is a fair one. Anti-Semitism has been found across the political spectrum. In Britain the anti-Semitism of the Left was often directed at bankers and financiers. This was the anti-Semitism of Belloc and Chesterton.

But there was also an anti-Semitism of the generally decent liberal elite. In the introduction to Harold Nicolson’s Diaries and Letters (utterly addictive – I go back to them time and again), his son Nigel, wrote that his father “knew that he belonged to an elite, an elite more of intelligence and achievement than of birth, and he tended to feel that people outside that elite had something wrong with them: Business-men, for example, the humbler type of schoolmaster or clergyman, most women, actors, most Americans, Jews, all coloured or Levantine peoples, and the great mass of the middle and working classes.”

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A double-dip recession would expose how badly Plan A has failed

That’s the news from the OECD, anyway. They’ve published their estimate of how much the British economy grew by in the first quarter of this year, and, well, it didn’t grow at all. It shrank. If their estimates are confirmed when the Office for National Statistics publishes its own first estimate next month, then we will officially have entered a double-dip recession. And to think that, just a few weeks ago, there were whispers about “green shoots”.

This is bad news for George Osborne’s reelection strategy. The Coalition’s plan called for austerity now, and the nation was fully prepared for two or three years of falling incomes. But this will make it clear what we were told in the Autumn statement: we face perhaps another four or five years of pain. In the entire time since the Chancellor came to No 10 in the spring of 2010, the economy has grown by a total of about 0.6 per cent of GDP. That’s less than it grew in the last quarter of Alistair Darling’s time in No 11.

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David Cameron needs more ministers who speak like everyday Britain

The conversation among Conservatives this morning is about the communications disaster that has gripped Downing Street. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. There is talk of this being the moment when David Cameron kissed goodbye to winning the next election. The dire headlines have got Tory MPs rattled, but it is the performances on their own side that cause them particular anguish. They want a promise that Francis Maude won’t be allowed anywhere near a television camera again – “managerial genius, but keep him back stage,” they say. They wish Mr Cameron would stop trying to pretend he isn’t a county gent with a fondness for toff sports, arguing – probably rightly – that voters prefer politicians who are what they are. They would like to see a few more people around the top duo who know what it’s like to clean toilets, to balance out the Rupert/Danny/Matthew metropolitan brain boxes. But what they really want is more Mike Penning.

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Britain’s cheapest house sold for ‘bargain’ £8250

Bidding started at a paltry £1 for the dilapidated two-bedroom terrace in Ferryhill Station, Co Durham, a former mining village.

But the house, which has been empty for at least 10 years, does require some renovating.

All of the windows are boarded up and vandals have sprayed graffiti on the walls. The interior is just as bad, with no ceilings or a kitchen leading neighbours to describe it simply as a “shell”.

Meanwhile, a nearby train line just 100 yards away makes so much noise it causes ornaments to rattle off the mantelpiece.

But property experts say the young family which snapped it up, could make a handsome profit if they decide to do it up and sell.

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Louvre uncovers restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s last work Saint Anne

The 18-month-long restoration of the painting that Leonardo laboured on for 20 years until his death in 1519 will go a long way to raising “Saint Anne” to its place as one of the most influential Florentine paintings of its time and a step towards the high Renaissance of Michelangelo.

The cleaning has endowed the painting portraying the Virgin Mary with her mother Saint Anne and the infant Jesus with new life and luminosity. Dull, faded hues were transformed into vivid browns and lapis lazuli that had visitors awestruck.

“It’s unbelievable, so beautiful. Now you have that same feeling as when you enter Michelangelo’s restored Sistine Chapel. Look at the blue!” one visitor, Odile Celier, 66, said on Wednesday.

The exhibit brings together some 130 preparatory drawings and studies by Leonardo and his apprentices – something curator Vincent Delieuvin likened to “a police investigation” – tracing the painting’s conception and revealing to experts today the entire development over the last 20 years of Leonardo’s life.

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Fuel strike: Tories send out former fireman MP to douse flames of petrol panic

Mr Penning did a round of broadcast interviews in which he explained that his senior colleague had made a mistake yesterday in advising people how to prepare for a possible strike by tanker drivers.

The shift from Mr Maude – the Cabinet Office minister responsible for civil contingencies – to Mr Penning as the Government’s principal spokesman on the strike marks a clear change in tone and style.

Sales of petrol and diesel increased dramatically as motorists flocked to garages to fill up following controversial advice from the Government ahead of a possible strike by fuel tanker drivers.

Petrol sales shot up by 81 per cent and diesel by 43 per cent, according to the Petrol Retailers Association, which represents around 5,500 garages across the UK.

A spokesman blamed advice from the Government on keeping tanks topped up, including the much-criticised call by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to fill up jerry cans.

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UK is back in recession, says OECD

In a major blow for the Chancellor, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has calculated that the UK economy shrank in the first three months of the year.

Over the January to March period, economic output fell compared to the previous quarter, at an annual rate of -0.4pc, the Paris-based think-tank believes. That would imply quarter-on-quarter growth of -0.1pc.

After three months of negative growth at the end of last year, that figure would signal that the UK has double-dipped back into a recession.

The analysis, contained within the OECD’s interim economic assessment, will pile pressure on George Osborne after official figures on Wednesday slashed the UK economy’s growth profile over 2011.

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