Even I’m starting to wonder: what do this lot know about anything?

When I first heard Francis Maude’s suggestion on Sky News that we might all stock up “a bit of extra fuel with a jerry can in the garage”, I did not, I must admit, panic. His remark seemed a little unwise – and you could hear, by the way he immediately began to qualify it, that he thought so too – but I let it pass.

What I was forgetting is that ministerial words about an immediate problem with basics like fuel or food is the only sort of ministerial statement which people believe. It was like when Edwina Currie, the then junior health minister, said in 1988 that most egg production was infected with salmonella. People stopped buying eggs. After Mr Maude spoke, they swarmed to the petrol pumps.

But now that I have heard the Conservatives’ private explanation, which is being handed down to constituency associations by MPs, I begin to feel angry.

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Fuel strike: government changes advice to say no need to queue for petrol

The Government now says there is no urgent need for drivers to top up petrol tanks after the Unite union ruled out a strike by tanker drivers over Easter.

There have been calls for Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, to resign after suggesting that people should stockpile petrol in jerry cans.

Prime Minister David Cameron also said it would be sensible for drivers to top up their tanks due to the potential for strike action, while others in Government suggested motorists keep their tanks two thirds full.

The advice sparked panic among consumers and resulted in long queues at petrol stations as drivers rushed to fill up their vehicles. There were even reports of one woman filling up jam jars and empty paint tins with fuel.

Petrol industry officials estimated that the number of forecourts that had run dry was probably “in the thousands”.

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Fuel strike: anger over government advice grows as woman burnt in petrol accident

Labour peer Lord Harris called for Francis Maude to resign after the woman, named locally as Diane Hill, suffered 40 per cent burns when she tried to pour petrol into a jug in her kitchen after her daughter’s car needed refuelling. The gas cooker was on and the petrol caught fire.

Mr Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, had told motorists earlier this week they should keep a jerry can in the garage to cope with a potential fuel shortage.

Lord Harris tweeted: “This woman was following advice from Govt Minister Francis Maude & ends up with 40% burns. Disgraceful. He shd resign.

Labour MP Karl Turner also joined calls for Mr Maude to resign in wake of the incident if it is linked to his earlier calls for people to keep a jerry can of fuel.

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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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In The Thick Of It

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph)

Armando Iannuci is still working on the new series of The Thick of It, but after yesterday, it has an awful lot to live up to: Westminsterhas descended into farce over fuel shortages and George Osborne’s “pasty tax”. The Sun has splashed with the headline “Half Baked” (with a free sausage roll for every reader) and all of the newspapers except the Guardian and the FT are leading on one story or the other.

First, fuel. As we report, the Government stands accused of causing entirely unnecessary panic buying of petrol, even though Unite – the union which is threatening to close supplies – is still at least a week away from calling a strike.

In particular, Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, messed things up when he told motorists: “as and when, when it makes sense, a bit of extra fuel in a jerry can in the garage is a sensible precaution to take”.

On The World At One, Martha Kearney took Maude to task for advocating something that is technically illegal – motorists can only store 10 litres of petrol in two plastic containers, while a jerry can contains 20. On Newsnight last night, Mike Penning, the roads minister, said that Maude had “made a mistake”.

But was Maude using the term as shorthand for a receptacle for a few gallons of spare fuel, or did he really mean the rusty old WWII jerry can Uncle Herbert brought back from Germany, I wonder?

I blogged on all this last night: this ‘crisis’ is entirely the Government’s own fault – it is botched communication that has got the Government into this mess (there’s also a video of David Cameron failing at badminton). In its leader today, The Times (£) picks up on my point: “ the Government has provoked a spike in demand that threatens to create the very shortages that it was trying to avoid.”

In the Telegraph, we hone in on Ed Miliband, who must be delighted that the coverage is focusing on the Government’s shambles, not his links with Unite: “Mr Miliband must do more than urge the parties to sit down and talk. He should tell Unite to call off the strike.”

Pasty panic

Important though the planned strike by Unite’s tanker drivers is, in the sunshine yesterday, it all just added to the sense of chaos in Westminster yesterday, which was already overwhelmed by the “pasty tax”. Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Rachel Reeves stopped in Redditch to stock up on sausage rolls, while David Cameron scrambled to explain when he last ate a pasty.

Judith Woods, who apparently knows how the temptation of Greggs works, explains why this matters: “Pastygate is important because it throws into sharp relief that the current Cabinet has been drawn, almost exclusively, from the ranks of the wealthy.”

On his Coffee House blog, James Forsyth says the same thing – this is a proxy row “about whether David Cameron and George Osborne get what it is like to worry about the family budget each week”. In his print column in today’s Spectator, Forsyth reports that Downing Street is certainly worrying about that: “ deep down, [David Cameron] realises the potency of any story about the Tories and a moneyed elite.”

Indeed, Peter Oborne reckons that this week may be the week “when trust and confidence evaporates and all that remains is a long battle of attrition”. Oborne argues that if David Cameron wants to “avoid going down in history as the PM who sold out to the spivs” then he needs to reconnect with the Tory party.

DAVE IS UP

Of course, there’s some more serious news around too. Today, the Government is publishing an update to the Open Public Services White Paper . In today’s Telegraph , we’ve got an article from David Cameron who explains the point of it (Francis Maude, who has a lot to do with this, presumably isn’t being allowed out). Here’s what Dave says:

“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.”

This is one of Steve Hilton’s last hurrahs before he goes off to America, and he will be delighted to have delivered agreement with the Lib Dems on the vexed question of resetting the assumptions of the public sector to allow private providers a right to offer services too. Whether to proceed with the legislation published today remains undecided though. It could be in the Queen’s Speech. Or not.

WELFARE CUTS

Some more serious stuff: the FT (£) has splashed on something we wondered about last week – where is this £10bn in new welfare cuts that George Osborne needs to find? According to the newspaper, the Government doesn’t know either – infighting is raging over where the savings will come from.

As Chris Grayling, the employment minister, tells the paper: “What the chancellor did in his budget was set out a framework for government as a whole and that £10bn is a figure that applies across government. He expressed the desire that we make further savings in welfare as part of that, but … we haven’t begun that kind of discussion yet”.

‘The government as a whole’ is definitely not what George said – he said welfare. But finding an extra £10bn of savings from DWP, on top of the £18bn-a-year already planned, will not be easy – as the FT points out, that’s 5 per cent of the department’s budget.

FOREIGN AID

If the DWP doesn’t take all the cuts, then one area George Osborne might be looking at is Andrew Mitchell’s DfID – one of the only parts of government with an increasing budget. As the Daily Mail reports gleefully, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has called for a cut in the aid budget, as it reckons that the 0.7 per cent of GDP target is “unhelpful”.

On the Today Programme this morning, Lord MacGregor, the chairman of the committee, attacked “wasteful” aid. His argument is that: “We believe aid should be judged by the criteria of effectiveness and value for money, not by whether a specific arbitrary target is reached.”

But Andrew Mitchell, the DfID secretary, has already shot back – he issued a statement to say that: “The Government makes no apologies for sticking to its commitments to the world’s poorest people.” Quite right too. And of course, they mostly don’t eat at Greggs.

TAX AVOIDANCE

The peers attacking the aid budget are not Andrew Mitchell’s only worry this morning; The Times has also put him on the spot for his tax affairs. As they report, the DfID secretary was a big investor in a company which avoided £2.6 million in stamp duty through exactly the sort of “aggressive avoidance” that George Osborne said was “morally repugnant” last week.

Mr Mitchell has since sold his investment and there is no suggestion that he played any part in the way that DV3 – the company – managed its tax affairs. But this does illustrate quite neatly some of the problems that can arise when you attack tax avoidance as a moral failing…

PEERLESS

Bad times also for Nick Clegg; as The Times (£) reports, the Deputy PM’s hopes of reforming the House of Lords have been “badly dented” by the decision of the committee he set up to examine reform to call for a referendum before any changes are introduced. Based on the AV referendum, I’m sure that idea will simply delight the Lib Dems…

POLL WATCH

Labour maintains its new 10 point lead: latest YouGov/The Sun results: Conservatives 34%, Labour 44%, Liberal Democrats 10%

TWEETS AND TWITS

Glyn Davies, Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, strikes a note of discord with Francis Maude: “Just leaving London after midnight. I know my car is empty of fuel. Hope not too many people have been to London garages with jerry cans.”

TOP COMMENT

In The Telegraph

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

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

Sue Cameron: Whitehall mandarins must stop being so defensive

Leader: Is Ed Miliband for or against a fuel crisis?

Best of the rest

Chris Giles in the FT (£): Britain may face worse than seven lean years

Steve Richards in the Independent: The liberal dilemma – how to rule and stick to your principles

Fraser Nelson on the Spectator’s Coffee House: The grey recovery

David Aaronovitch in The Times (£): We shouldn’t destroy this tweeting idiot’s life

THE AGENDA

Today: Bradford West holds a by-election to replace departing Labour MP Marsha Singh

8.00am: Vince Cable appears the Centre for Cities’ annual post-Budget briefing, on ‘economic boost or business as usual’

11.00am: Ed Balls appears on College Green with representatives from the Whizz-Kidz and Action for Stammering Children charities to launch his marathon bid – donate at just.ly/edballsmp

7.00pm: William Hague speaks at the Lord Mayor’s Easter Banquet for the diplomatic corps at Mansion House

 

Donor Meat

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?

FALL OUT

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).

BUDGET WHISPERS

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?

PLANNING

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.

HEATHROW

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.

PETROL STRIKING

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?

EUROGEDDON

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.

HONOURED

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 .

POLL WATCH

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”

TOP COMMENT

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

THE AGENDA

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

 

David Cameron is paying the price for his decision not to appoint a proper Tory party Chairman – Telegraph Blogs

Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, has been notable by her absence since news of the “Cash for Cameron” affair first broke. Instead it has fallen to a tag team of Francis Maude and Michael Fallon to go from studio to studio explaining why this is a “bit of nonsense” (in Maude’s words) which simultaneously the Conservative party leadership takes seriously.

Warsi’s co-chairman, Lord Feldman – Andrew Feldman, ennobled by his close friend David Cameron – has not been seen either. This is less surprising, as Feldman is the Cameroon’s fund-raising lynchpin and keeps a low profile. He was interviewed for the Financial Times recently as part of a profile on Cameron’s first two years as PM. Feldman explained that his friend was good at his job and works tremendously hard, but does look a “little tired” (in contrast to many millions of Britons who commute, work to keep their heads above water, do not have access to two grace and favour homes and look completely knackered).

“Cash for Cameron” has underlined the absence of a proper old-style Tory party chairman. Matthew Barrett (“Where’s the Party Chairman?”) spotted this yesterday, when Fallon and Maude were doing the 10,000 metres media relay. He suggested that Cameron needs to get himself a chairman to lead from the front pronto.

Read more….