MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).
Good morning. The Coalition is in trouble. The alliance between Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband over Leveson left David Cameron muttering about a “hung parliament” after he pulled the plug on negotiations over press regulation. The Mail has taken it very seriously with a front page headline of “Coalition is torn apart”, arguing in their leader that a “tawdry alliance” of Lib and Lab has given rise to “the pathetic spectacle of Her Majesty’s Opposition cravenly trying to appease a faded film star with a rackety sex life”. Labour and the Lib Dems, parties whose leaders have pledged to “work together” on the issue, now look likely to attempt to attach amendments to both the defamation Bill and a proposed government law cutting red-tape in an attempt to force a vote on a legislative solution. Tory sources argue that Labour is now the political wing of Hacked Off, and such is their hold over the issue that the party will attempt to wreck the Government’s entire legislative programme in order to force the matter to a vote.
While it is open to Dave to drop press legislation entirely, he would apparently prefer to gamble on securing a majority of MPs, as the Guardian‘s Patrick Wintour points out. Can he win a vote? politics.co.uk has crunched the numbers and seems to think that with abstentions from some of the minor parties, including possibly the SNP, the Miliband-Clegg axis will have a single figure majority. The Times (£) considers it “all but impossible” that Mr Cameron will prevail, while pro-Leveson Tories like George Eustice have expressed exasperation at the Prime Minister’s decision to break off negotiations by phone shortly before 10am yesterday. Our leader backs Mr Cameron’s stance as the “lesser of two evils”, but the Guardian, Independent, Mirror and FT all declined to do put their names to a statement issued by the Newspaper Society yesterday, suggesting that Fleet Street is now as divided on the issue as the Commons.
Sources say Nick Clegg left Mr Cameron in no doubt about his anger a being ambushed moments before the PM’s press conference. Curtains for the Coalition? No, but it will add to the atmosphere of animosity and distrust between the parties making governing far more difficult, particularly ahead of a spending review which both will approach with competing objectives. The Lib-Lab pact over Leveson indicates that there is a degree of chemistry between the leaders. This feels ominously like a dry-run for late May 2015.
WE WANT AUSTERITY, JUST NOT FROM YOU
The public agrees with statements about the need for austerity…until they learn they have been made by George Osborne. The Ipsos/MORI pre-Budget poll reported in the Evening Standard found that support for a statement fell when the sample learnt that it was made by George and rose when they found it was by Ed Balls. The Tories led by 11 points when unattributed statements were given. This turned into a 16 point lead for Labour when the speakers were named. What else did we learn? As the Mail notes, 55pc of voters want the overseas aid budget cut, 44pc want a reduction in welfare spending, while only 28pc would like to see a reduction on defence spending. In other words, their austerity priorities are in a reverse order to those of the Coalition. Fraser Nelson writes for us today that it might be time to re-consider some of the pension age benefits the Coalition has pledged to defend to the hilt:
“The Government is wrong to regard pensioners as charity cases, it is also wrong to dispense so much charity that it cannot really afford. The idea of free bus passes, for example, is hard to defend in the age of cuts.”
With the scope for Plan B limited, and Plan A+ ruled out, the Chancellor has no room for fiscal manoeuvring in any case, a point made by the FT (£) but disputed by Bloomberg in an editorial which calls for front-loaded fiscal easing in an editorial this morning. There are some steps being taken to make fiscal policy more effective – the FT (£) reports that an independent infrastructure commission will be established to oversee major projects over a 40 year period – but most of the activism of the next year will be on the monetary side. The Chancellor recently sent Rupert Harrison to Washington to sound out the Americans on the “evolution” of central bank policy, although it is understood a targeted nominal GDP growth rate has now been ruled out. Of course, nothing will be decided until Mark Carney arrives. In the meantime, his predecessor gave an interview to ITV last night in which he said that the economy was on the verge of recovery and that Sterling had now fallen far enough for the British economy to “rebalance”. It must be time to go. When a central banker’s tired of currency depreciation, he’s tired of life.
BORIS TO THE RESCUE
Kapow! Fear not Cameroons, Boris is here. Taking on the unlikely role of bringer of unity, the Mayor of London tells “ministers” that they should “cool their porridge [and] put a sock in it” in an interview with the Sun. It is, however, fine for Boris himself to criticise the Prime Minister, he explains, as “the last time I checked I wasn’t in the Cabinet.” Bo-Jo being loyal to his old school chum, or just panicked that a leadership campaign has got under-way without him? Surely only a cynic would think the latter. The interview took place in Paris as Boris is visiting the French capital. This morning he gave an interview to France Inter this morning in fluent French where he compared himself and Dave to Wallace and Gromit.
SHAPPS: TORIES MAY LOSE IN 2015
In an interview with The House magazine, Grant Shapps has conceded that the Tories may not win in 2015. As Bloomberg reports, he argued that the party needed to get its message across “not for our sakes. We may or may not win the next election, but my God we need to finish this, the job of stopping this country going bust, fixing the mess that Labour left, or at least as far as we can.”
CAMERON SACKS MILITARY ADVISER
The head of the Armed Forced Pay Review Board, the independent body which is responsible for military pay, has been sacked after suggesting that servicemen ought to be given a pay rise to compensate for defence cuts. We report that Prof Alasdair Smith had led the body when it concluded that the cuts had meant a “deterioration in the quality of military life”. Following the submission of the report in January, Prof Smith was told that his tenure would not be renewed when it expired this month.
IDS BLASTS BBC
Do not, as Iain Duncan Smith has warned before, underestimate the determination of a quiet man. IDS’s insistence that what Labour keeps calling the “bedroom tax” is a “spare room subsidy” has led him to write to the BBC to accuse it of failing in its “duty to inform the public”, the Sun reports. IDS told the corporation that “it is not the job of the BBC to use misleading terms and promote the views of the Labour party”. So there.
HUNT: NICHOLSON SHARES BLAME
Sir David Nicholson “bears some responsibility” for the tragedy at Mid Staffordshire, the Health Sectretary said yesterday. However, he added that Sir David does not bear “total, or indeed personal, responsibility for what happened”, as the Mail reports. How you can bear some responsibility, but not in a personal sense of the word, was a semantic mystery which Jeremy Hunt did not expand on.
Britain and France are moving closer to directly arming Syrian rebels, the Guardian reports. Following a meeting between Mr Cameron and Francois Hollande at the European summit in Brussels yesterday, a diplomatic effort has been launched to break German resistance to the end of an arms export embargo on Syria’s rebels. The Franco-British argument is that it is “odd” that a policy of protecting civilians was supported by another which ensured an imbalance of weaponry between the sides. The counter-argument, of course, is that you don’t protect civilians by flooding a warzone with guns. Horse for courses.
Philip Hammond continued his strident defence of Trident while speaking in Edinburgh yesterday. The same people now backing the SNP’s threat to remove nuclear weapons stationed north of the border in the event of a vote for independence would be “wagging the finger” if Britain was threatened by a nuclear armed nation in the future, he added.
Eric Joyce was arrested last night in the Sports and Social Club on the parliamentary estate. The independent MP was detained after allegedly wrestling with two police officers, we report. Mr Joyce is understood to have objected to a request not to take a drink outside the bar.
Labour has suspended Lord Ahmed for allegedly blaming a Jewish conspiracy for a jail sentence he received following a fatal motorway crash. As we report, the peer allegedly told Pakistani television that he was opposed by “my Jewish friends who own newspapers and TV channels”. Lord Ahmed has said he has “no recollection” of the interview.
TWEETS AND TWITS
A day out in the Big Smoke goes pear shaped for John Woodcock’s team:
@jwoodcock: “Staff from Barrow in London for the day. First act was to break a Tube ticket barrier by ramming an Oyster card into the slot.“
In the Telegraph
Fraser Nelson – Don’t attack Britain’s oldies – they keep the economy going
Jeremy Warner – Germany’s prudence is Europe’s pain
Stephen Pollard – The anti-Semites mistaken for mere eccentrics
Telegraph View – Parliament must support a free press
Best of the Rest
Philip Collins in the Times (£) – With this mess Labour should be miles ahead
Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun – If MPs seize the presses it is you who will lose out
Samuel Brittan in the FT (£) – The British Budget is not as great as it used to be
Polly Toynbee in The Guardian – March to stop this heartless and pointless bedroom tax
TODAY: David Cameron attends European Council Meeting. Universities and Science Minister David Willetts to announce the launch of the first higher apprenticeships in space engineering.