MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph)
Well – that didn’t last long. Mere hours after Francis Maude popped up on Today to explain why the Government’s refusal to publish details of Dave’s dinners was “open Government”, No 10 changed tack and published the list of donors who have dined at No 10 and Chequers.
Our splash story is here . Mr Cameron will be relieved that the headlines are not as strident as yesterday after No 10 shovelled out the details. But he should note the universal view that No 10′s handling was sorely lacking. His aides say they have moved as quickly as bureaucracy and record-trawling allow while acknowledging that nothing looks fast enough in the age of Twitter speed.
They also plead with us to note the irony of yesterday’s petrol strikes announcement by Unite, Labour’s own big donor (more on that below). Labour are pressing with further questions, but will we see today one of those moments when a ‘scandal’ loses momentum because there are no new revelations, or will something turn up?
The challenge for the Tories is to resist demands for a switch to party funding, not least if Nick Clegg seizes his chance to force the issue. Yesterday, David Cameron ‘conceded’ a funding cap of £50,000, but the Labour Party wants a cap at £10,000, as Sir Christopher Kelly – the chairman of the parliamentary watchdog – recommended. Will they ever be able to agree?
In today’s Telegraph , we say that donations aren’t the problem – transparency is. “There is nothing wrong with business leaders lobbying government; nor is there anything wrong with people making donations to political parties. Both are intrinsic parts of the democratic process – but both must be transparent.”
Also in the Telegraph, Paul Goodman reminds us that lobbyists and donors aren’t really buying influence – they’re buying glamour: “Namely, those who give not out of loyalty or even greed, but from another motive which, though no more noble, is arguably less harmful: vanity.”
But Mary Riddell reckons that while cash-for-access is nothing new, David Cameron’s particular association with wealth makes this dangerously toxic. “Voters already convinced that the Tories have cut the top tax rate to help their rich friends will wonder, as they are bound to, whether the Chancellor’s apparent enthusiasm for a third Heathrow runway and relaxed planning rules could possibly be driven by lobbyists.”
Elsewhere, in The Times (£), Rachel Sylvester looks at the funding question – she argues that the parties are stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma. She reckons that the Tories need to accept a lower cap on donations while Labour must look at its union links. In his analysis for the Guardian , Patrick Wintour agrees – he says that: “for the first time in a generation there may be an equivalence of mutual self-interest in tearing up the current arrangements”.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail demands a cleaning up of politics to end the “cesspit of corrupt party funding”, and taxpayers must not make up the shortfall. Inside, Andrew Pierce profiles Tory Party chairman Andrew Feldman – David Cameron’s best friend and one of the most quietly influential men in the Conservative Party.
Finally, in its leader the FT (£) calls for Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations, including the £3 per voter of public funding – to be implemented. They’ll be lucky.
ASIDE – Barack’s dinners – Perhaps the PM was just learning from the President – tweeted this morning by Barack Obama: “Ever wanted to have dinner with the President? Now’s your chance—take the last seat at the next #DinnerWithBarack: OFA.BO/TpCU2Q”
(though with Barack, donations start at $10, not £250,000).
Labour are sticking to their argument that last week’s Budget was an outrageous transfer of wealth to the rich ( see Polly Toynbee today for evidence). So how do we explain this?: last night, Labour failed to vote against the cut in 50p tax. Instead it was left to the SNP to call a vote, which Labour abstained on.
A senior No 10 source emails that “given the fuss they’ve made about it over the last days it is pretty extraordinary” . But Ed Balls has taken to defending himself on Twitter, pointing out that “Lab voted against whole Budget tonight. But no chance to vote solely on 50p tax. Will ensure there is in Finance Bill & vote against”.
ED BALLS OUT
Page 18 and 19 of the Daily Mirror today are on Ed Balls’s fitness regime – the shadow chancellor has given an interview to the paper explaining exactly how he’s preparing for the London marathon.
Here’s what he says: “Finishing will be enough. I think running the marathon will be a bit like the leadership election for the Labour party. It’s funny going into a race which you think you won’t win, but is still worth running.”
Oh, and apparently Mrs Ed Balls isn’t so keen: “Yvette [Cooper] thinks it’s completely ridiculous and that at my age, 26 miles is a very, very long way. She might be right.” Did she think that about your leadership bid too, Ed?
The other political story today is planning – the Government’s revised National Planning Policy Framework, which is intended to slim down the masses of planning laws to just 50 pages, will be published at 12.30pm. Greg Clark, the planning minister, is also expected to give a statement to the House of Commons around then.
Chris Hope’s full story on the reforms is here. Since we launched our Hands Off Our Land campaign last summer, the Government has made several concessions. Officials will have to consider the importance of “ordinary” countryside when approving developments, while an explicit requirement to build on brownfield land first will be reinstated.
However, the controversial “presumption in favour of sustainable development” is still there, and though we are assured that the corners have been knocked off, No 10 sources are stressing that this is an “unashamedly pro-growth document”. Worrying.
Speaking of planning: one thing that George Osborne is very keen to build is new airport capacity in the South East – as the FT (£) reports, the Chancellor wants to show he has the “political balls” (presumably he doesn’t mean his shadow) to push through new capacity, even though his aides say that there is “no softening” on a third runway at Heathrow.
As promised – petrol strikes. The Daily Mail has splashed on the story, reporting that the country will be “held to ransom” by 1,000 tanker drivers, who yesterday voted for a national strike. As they report : “The walkout, which threatens to wreck the Easter break, could close nearly 8,000 petrol stations.”
So far, Ed Miliband has refused to condemn the strikers, who are part of the Unite union – Labour’s biggest financial backer. Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, and no fan of the “Blairite” Ed, said that drivers are looking for an “amicable settlement”, but refused to rule out strikes early next month. What will Ed say?
The headlines haven’t been so bad recently, but if you thought the prospect of euro-armageddon has receded, this brilliant quote from Stephen Nickell, the economic historian who advises the Office for Budget Responsibility, ought to make you think again: “Occasionally I go and look at William Hill, they have the odds on these sorts of things. Last time I looked, the odds of Greece not using euro by the end of the year were the order of about 40pc, a bit lower after the latest Greek bail-out talks”.
That is presumably why it is a good thing that the OBR’s estimates for economic growth rule out the possibility of a Greek collapse…
DOING THE MATHS
Free Enterprise Group MP Liz Truss has a debate in Westminster Hall today worth noting: she wants a “subject premium” to be paid to schools teaching maths and further maths at A-level to boost the numbers of children taking the subjects.
According to her research, under the funding formula A Level Media Studies, Psychology, Physics and Biology receive twelve percent more funding than Maths and English, while non A-level subjects like floristry with more practical content are given even higher weightings . Liz wants this reversed – wish her luck.
Not all politicians are dishonoured today: Edward Heath and James Callaghan are to be honoured with memorial stones at Westminster Abbey. In today’s Telegraph , we have a column from Leo McKinstry, who says that Jim Callaghan was not our “worst Prime Minister” ever – or anything close:
“When Callaghan departed in 1979, the mess that his government left was reversible, as Margaret Thatcher heroically demonstrated. But, tragically, the same is not true today. Blair and Brown, the twin architects of New Labour, altered the fabric of our country forever.”
On the topic of honours, it’s also worth noting the death yesterday of Lord Newton of Braintree – Social Security Secretary under Margaret Thatcher and later Leader of the House. Our obituary is here .
The shocking poll is from ComRes in the Independent: Labour are ten points ahead, on 43%, against the Conservatives on just 33% (the Lib Dems are on their perpetual 11%).
Then there is also a Populus poll in The Times, which puts Labour on 38%, the Conservatives on 34% and the Lib Dems on 11%.
Finally, YouGov’s daily poll for The Sun puts Labour on 43%, the Conservatives on 35% and the Lib Dems on 9%.
In all three, the Conservatives are down sharply. So the Budget went down well eh, chaps?
TWEETS AND TWITS
Conservative MP for South West Norfolk and prominent free-marketeer Liz Truss, distracted from seriousness by a rodent: “Eek mouse alert in tearoom. Has ruined my discussion about tax policy.”
Also, he’s not an MP but the FT’s Chris Cook deserves a mention for this tweet: “Please can someone connect the Cameron donor antics to his home in London. So we can have #nottinghillgate”
In The Telegraph
Mary Riddell: Cash for access: the scent of money has become a bad smell around David Cameron
Paul Goodman: David Cameron – smooth yes, dodgy no
Philip Johnston: A new era dawns for the grammar school
Leader: Full transparency is the best disinfectant
Best of the rest
Rachel Sylvester in The Times (£): On funding they really are all in it together
Polly Toynbee in the Guardian: Self-confidence matters. This is a moment for Labour to seize
Philip Stephens in the FT (£): Baby boomers are the wrong target
Malcolm Rifkind in The Times (£): Only real secrets must be kept out of court
Today: Day II of the Seoul nuclear security summit
Today: Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna speaks at the The Social Enterprise Exchange in Glasgow
11.30am: Andrew Lansley takes oral questions in the House of Commons, before it rises for its easter recess
12.30pm: The National Planning Policy Framework is published – planning minister Greg Clark makes an oral statement to the House of Commons
2.15pm: George Osborne appears in front of the Treasury Committee with Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas MacPherson to give evidence on the Budget statement
3.15pm: Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King appears in front of the House of Lords economic affairs committee to answer questions on the economic outlook
7.00pm: Theresa May gives the speaker’s lecture, followed by a Q&A, at Speaker’s House