Taking Liberties

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph)

BREAKING – Ken Clarke on the Today Programme, discussing plans for more ‘secret courts’ to handle sensitive evidence from intelligence agencies, which Nick Clegg now objects to: “I usually agree with Nick Clegg and most of the Liberals on these things… we’re consulting on this question.. and we’re consulting in a way which will make this more accountable.”

Later, he said that he “agrees with Nick Clegg on principle” but he’s “not sure I agree with him now”. Clarke argued that: “The problem, which I don’t think the [JCHR - more below] Committee has addressed and which Nick Clegg is trying to address… is that you can’t have British intelligence officers in court… The evidence just isn’t given.”

Clarke said that “I don’t feel under immense American pressure” to make changes, but he did say that Americans “feel nervous” about the revelation of information. “I can’t force the Americans to give our intelligence people full cooperation – if they fear our courts, they won’t give us information”. He said that is the problem he is consulting on – and “sometimes national security requires that you give confidentiality to third party countries”.

On eavesdropping and the ‘snoopers’ charter’, he said we would have the “same safeguards as we’ve had with telephones for some time”. He said that he’s “not going to have difficulties persuading Nick” that he needn’t object. “Some people use the internet” said Ken and so the rules “that no one was complaining about when it was telephone calls ” must be extended to the internet.

TAKING LIBERTIES

Easter is nearly here, and the trials of the Government continue this morning: it’s U-turn crazy, on the Government’s ‘secret courts’ idea as well on the ‘snoopers’ charter’, as Nick Clegg yesterday made clear his opposition to both.

We’ve put the details of the “snooping” story on p1 – read it here . As he confirmed on the World at One yesterday, Mr Clegg has told his MPs that the Bill will be published in draft form, giving them the opportunity to gut it. 17 Lib Dem backbenchers have a letter in the Independent and the Guardian to thank him.

The Times (£) meanwhile has splashed on the “secret courts” climbdown – Ken Clarke says that will now only be allowed where disclosure of intelligence evidence threatens the national interest, rather than just when it is “sensitive”, after Clegg wrote to the National Security Council threatening to withhold Lib Dem support.

As the Guardian reports in its splash, the Justice Secretary was facing severe criticism from the Joint Committee on Human Rights for the proposals.

Three details stand out: Nick Clegg has caved on closed court hearings and eavesdropping in the face of the fury of his own side, Ken Clarke has suggested tightening the terms of the green paper in use of intelligence based evidence, and the knives are out for Theresa May for way the Home Office has handled things.

Theresa May’s handling of this is perhaps the most interesting, as until now she has been admired in No 10 for not putting a foot wrong. It also shows how easy it is for a government to get locked into a narrative of incompetence. Who on earth thought it was a good idea to put out the eavesdropping plans when the Village was in a frenzy over petrol, pasties and granny?

We will also wait to discover why Mr Clegg has waited until now to make his views known, given how long this has been in preparation. No 10 will be dismayed by the way the DPM has chosen his moment to pull the rug on the Government. His opposition is predictable, his timing will be seen as suspect: panic in the face of pressure, or calculated politics, sticking the knife in when the PM is down?

COMMENT

Climb-downs aside, there’s plenty of comment around condemning the Government’s plans on both eavesdropping and secret courts.

In today’s Telegraph, on eavesdropping, Dominic Raab argues that “intelligence-led policing, not Orwellian surveillance is the key to protecting the public”. Raab believes that privacy concerns must be scrutinised by Parliament to balance privacy with safety.

That’s a point we second in our leader column, on secret courts: “There are times when the national interest requires secrecy, and it is naive to pretend otherwise. But Parliament must ensure that the law is properly framed to balance the requirements of fairness and security.”

The Guardian meanwhile focuses on the Joint Committee on Human Rights report in its leader, arguing that the Government shouldn’t mess with the rule of law – the two issues of snooping and secret courts: “threaten to deliver a body blow to the coalition agreement’s welcome promise in 2010 “to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power”.

The Daily Mail is in rare agreement with the Guardian about that – they even praise Nick Clegg for his stance: “Perhaps the liberal in the Lib Dem leader is not quite dead after all.”

The FT’s leader (£) meanwhile attacks the snooping proposals: “When in opposition, the Tories argued that citizens should not have to entrust the maintenance of their civil liberties to the good intentions of those in power over them”.

EASTER MESSAGES

This is the last email for a few days – service will resume on Tuesday after the long weekend. In the meantime, here’s my column from today’s newspaper on the state of the Coalition – after the last couple of weeks, I’m not the only one who’s glad of a little downtime; the team at No 10 want a break from the ‘omnishambles’ too.

As I say, David Cameron’s most significant achievement as an opposition politician was to persuade the public that a national effort was required to restore the public finances to a semblance of health. The experience of recent days risks undermining that. Behind the scenes senior figures are shaken, and offering advice – but there will be no deckchair moving in the party; the key is to govern well.

That’s also the view of Danny Finkelstein, who tells us in The Times (£) not to confuse a bad week with a big problem. “The party is being advised how to avoid another ‘worst week’ (inherently unavoidable) rather than how to address its long-term weaknesses,” he says – and shuffling around party figures like Lord Feldman is not a solution to deeper problems.

Indeed, in the Guardian,Simon Jenkins goes even further: he reckons that the last week wasn’t just irrelevant – it was actually good. “All in all, it has not been a disastrous bout of modern British government”, he argues,. The problem is that “the volume of noise from Westminster’s news factory drowns sentient analysis”.

PRAY FOR ME, SAYS DAVE

David Cameron has also published his own Easter message – and it’s a little more forthright than we’ve come to expect from No 10: “This is the time when, as Christians, we remember the life, sacrifice and living legacy of Christ. The New Testament tells us so much about the character of Jesus; a man of incomparable compassion, generosity, grace, humility and love.”

We Christians? This Government does God; Dave, who once said that his faith “fades in and out”, is clearly feeling pious at the moment. At a reception at No 10 yesterday, the PM told church ministers: “I hope we won’t fall out too much over gay marriage” . He reckons he is actually on Christianity’s side, adding that: “I think there’s something of a fightback going on, and we should welcome that”.

But then, as Dave joked at the reception for perhaps his new found piety is a result of his recent problems: “in the past week I’ve felt like I needed someone to pray for me.”

BIG SOC BALL

Yesterday, it was Christianity – today it’s the Big Society. Again. Today, Dave is giving a speech to launch Big Society Capital, a bank funded with £400m from dormant bank accounts and another £200m from banks under the Merlin lending agreement.

Dave is speaking at 10.45, and we have a trail of what he will say here: “Today, this is about supplying capital to help society expand ”, he will say. “This is a self-sustaining, independent market that’s going to help build the Big Society.”

The idea is that the bank will lend to social enterprises and social projects, such as playgroups, credit unions and residents’ groups trying to take control of their post office, local shop or library.

Getting the project off the ground will no doubt please Steve Hilton, who hasn’t left just yet – it has taken two years to set up the fund, which had to be formally approved by the EU under state aid rules. But will anyone want to borrow from it?

BORIS V KEN

There was also some proper politics yesterday, as finally the London mayoral race finally began to get interesting: “You fucking liar” shouted Boris at Ken in a lift three times after Ken alleged that Boris avoided tax through a company he part-owned when he was an MP, Finland Station.

Boris was said to be red-faced and furious - as the Guardian’s Hélène Mulholland reports: “an incensed Johnson unleashed his ire in front of fellow passengers Paddick, Jones and LBC managing editor James Rea.”

Michael Deacon’s sketch in today’s Telegraph is on the fight (mostly the bit on the radio, rather than in the lift): “Poor LBC. The London radio station went to all the trouble of arranging a live ding-dong between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, and yet the best bit happened when they were off-air.” As well as their tax affairs, Boris even attacked Ken for being unable to ride a bike.

Team Boris were putting out frantic statement about Ken’s 12 ‘lies’ yesterday, and the fight made the splash of the Evening Standard. But it’s hard to imagine that swearing at Ken will hurt Boris too much. For one thing, as James Forsyth notes here, it seems that the Mayor is quite right: he has never dodged tax.

LIB DEM DELUSION

And finally, a silly one: Ed Davey, the energy secretary, reckons that we shouldn’t leave out joining the euro - in an interview with the New Statesman , the Lib Dem minister said that: “You’d be an unwise person to ever rule something out totally.You just don’t know what’s going to happen and given the uncertainties in our economy, I think it would be reckless to rule any of your options out.”

So it seems that a Dutch 11 year old boy has a better idea of what should happen with the euro than a Lib Dem Cabinet minister. Oh well…

POLL WATCH

Latest YouGov/Sun – Conservatives 34%, Labour 42%, Liberal Democrats 8%.

TWEETS AND TWITS

Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East and shadow foreign minister, joins Stella Creasy in tweeting about music I’ve never heard of: “Been doing emails for hours and hours….currently to the sound of the Chi-Lites. You Don’t Have to Go, Stoned Out of My Mind, classics…”

TOP COMMENT

In The Telegraph

Benedict Brogan: Are we still willing to play along with David Cameron’s pain game?

Dominic Raab: Parliament must protect the public’s privacy

Neil O’Brien: Why Michael Gove is trying to put himself out of a job setting A-levels

Leader: Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner should tango

Best of the rest

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian: Ignore the pasties and the petrol stories: it was a good fortnight for the government

Danny Finkelstein in The Times (£): Don’t confuse a bad week with a big problem

Alice Thomson in The Times (£): But what about the workers, Mr Cameron?

Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman: Baroness Warsi – not a dull grey man in a suit

THE AGENDA

Today: The Bank of England’s

Today: Acas talks between petrol tanker drivers from the Unite union and seven distribution firms begin

Today: The Navy warship HMS Dauntless sets sail to the South Atlantic on a routine mission to the Falklands

9.15am: Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer and his predecessor Lord Macdonald give evidence to the Leveson inquiry

10.45am: David Cameron speaks in London to launch Big Society Capital – a social investment fund

Moose Hunting

Paddy and Mick get a pilot to fly them to Canada to hunt moose.

They bag six.

As Paddy and Mick start loading the plane for the return trip, the pilot says, “The plane can only take four of those.”

The two lads object strongly. “Last year we shot six, and the pilot let us put them all on board; he had the same plane as yours.”

Reluctantly, the pilot gives in and all six are loaded.

However, even with full power, the little plane can’t handle the load and down it goes and crashes in the middle of nowhere.

A few moments later, climbing out of the wreckage, Paddy asks Mick,
“Any idea where we are?”

“I think we’re pretty close to where we crashed last year,” says Mick.

Why Michael Gove is trying to put himself out of a job setting A-levels

Michael Gove’s decision to hand back control of the examination system to the universities has been widely welcomed as the last, best chance to rescue the A-level. For decades, politicians have presided over a system in which such qualifications have been relentlessly devalued. The former “gold standard” has become the educational equivalent of the lira or the Laotian kip.

The most visible sign that things were going wrong was the explosive growth of Mickey Mouse subjects (yogurt studies, anyone?). But the damage done to the core curriculum was even worse: the level of mathematical ability that would have earned a D or E at A-level 20 years ago now secures an A or a B.

Under the last government, the implicit view was that the whole schools system was so incompetent that the only way to fix its flaws was to micro-manage from the centre. Mr Gove believes – rightly – that meddling politicians and Whitehall officials are the problem, not the solution. In January, he handed control of the information technology curriculum to industry and universities, rather than the exam boards and Whitehall.

Read more….

Are we still willing to play along with David Cameron’s pain game?

David Cameron’s most significant achievement as an opposition politician was to persuade the public that a national effort was required to restore the public finances to a semblance of health. Closing the structural deficit, as a prelude to paying down debt, was accepted as an existential necessity. This was to be achieved through significant spending cuts and some tax rises, with growth doing the rest.

Underpinning the economics was a public consensus, secured by a Conservative argument about sound money and old-fashioned good housekeeping, that a collective belt-tightening was called for. Along with George Osborne, Mr Cameron persuaded us that it was time to cut up the credit cards, scale down the holidays and switch to own brands and packed lunches.

The Coalition’s first emergency Budget, which required government departments to deliver a programme of increasingly significant spending reductions by the end of this Parliament, was accepted without a murmur. By contrast, Greece, and more recently Spain, remind us how a society can fray or even fracture if there is no public agreement behind a government’s policies, or if its institutions are not sufficiently robust to withstand extreme internal and external pressures.

Read more….

You can’t hurry love: Edinburgh giant pandas fail to mate under pressure of the ‘love tunnel’

Spare a thought then for Yang Guang, Britain’s only male panda, who appeared exhausted yesterday by the whole baby – or in his case cub – business.

Britain’s only giant pandas were put together for the first time in the unappealingly named “love tunnel” at Edinburgh Zoo in the hope that they would mate.

But while Tian Tian, the female of the pair, was more than a little obvious in her intentions, Yang Guang was merely shaken and not stirred.

Panda experts have been monitoring her urine for days to check her hormone levels and declared that the time was right.

But as she is only in season for 36 hours a year, Yang Guang, whose name translates as Sunshine, would have to be quick about it.

Read more….

Ed Davey: Coalition will be more pro-European than New Labour

In a direct challenge to Tory eurosceptics, Ed Davey said it would be “reckless” and “unwise” to rule out joining the euro.

The Energy and Climate Change Secretary dismissed David Cameron’s veto of a new European Union treaty as nothing more than a “blip” in Britain’s relationship with Brussels.

Mr Davey’s comments, in an interview published in today’s New Statesman magazine, will be seen as a defiant declaration of Liberal Democrat foreign policy, risking a fresh split in the Coalition.

The Prime Minister remains under pressure over Europe from the Right of his own party.

He secured a “bounce” in support from the public and was hailed as a hero by many of his own MPs after refusing to sign up to the new fiscal pact, which is intended to resolve the crisis in the eurozone, last December.

Read more….

US election 2012: Mitt Romney scores Republican primary hat-trick as he steps up campaign

The former Massachusetts governor completely ignored his Republican rivals as he claimed victory, elevating himself above his party’s nominating process to focus instead on President Barack Obama, whom he accused of engineering a “Government-Centred Society” at the expense of American individualism.

Casting himself as the champion of “free people and free enterprise”, Mr Romney sought to marshal both businesses and families against the President’s model of interventionist government.

“In Barack Obama’s Government-Centred Society, the government must do more because the economy is doomed to do less,” he told a cheering crowd in Milwaukee. “When you attack business and vilify success, you will have less business and less success.”

Mr Romney attacked the Democratic incumbent as an “out of touch liberal” and vowed that if elected he would help build “the greatest America we have ever known, where prosperity is grown and shared, not limited and divided.”

Read more….

Ministers accused of retreat over internet surveillance plans

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, said publishing draft legislation will allow Liberal Democrat MPs and backbench Conservatives to rewrite plans to allow the authorities greater access to phone, email and internet records.

Civil liberties campaigners and Lib Dem MPs last night welcomed Mr Clegg’s words as a significant concession, although the Coalition remains committed to overhauling the rules on communications records.

Ministers are facing a backlash after confirmation that the Coalition wants to go ahead with changes that would allow the State immediate access to the phone numbers people dial, the addresses they email and the web pages they access.

Lib Dem backbenchers and some Conservative MPs are strongly opposed to the proposals, which they see as a threat to civil liberties.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission yesterday warned that the proposals could break human rights laws, and a former police chief called them a “massive state intervention”.

Read more….