Cameron salutes Thatcher ahead of funeral

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).

BREAKING NEWS: David Cameron has told the Today programme that “we are all Thatcherites now…the big arguments she had everyone now accepts”. He added that Baroness Thatcher was “partly” the reason he joined the party and was a “force for good”. He pointed out that her achievements arrived “step-by-step-by-step”, a pointed remark given the calls for him to adopt a more reforming programme.

“George Osborne put it very well in saying that we all live in Margaret Thatcher’s shadow…we should embrace that.”

He added that protesters to “show respect” at “a fitting tribute to a great prime minister respected around the world.”

PLANNING FOR CONFRONTATION

Good morning. The Coalition won last night’s planning vote, but narrowly. Carrying a majority of only 27, it defeated an amendment to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill which would have given councils a veto over the policy of allowing homeowners to build extensions of up to 26ft without planning permission. There were 16 rebels on the Tory side including Zac Goldsmith, Nick de Bois and Tracey Crouch. A further eight Lib Dems including former minister Paul Burstow also refused to back the Government (a full list is available over at the Spectator).

As we report, in order to save the day Eric Pickles was forced to promise MPs a revision to the existing plans. Appealing for the “help” and “assistance” of the backbenches to take these reforms forward saw them through, but former Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan’s remarks were instructive – “I am afraid we are not going to believe what you say at that dispatch box until we see it in black and white”. With the May council elections likely to see the Tories lose hundreds of seats, this was a timely reminder that while the public eruptions of discontent with the party hierarchy may have quietened down, the backbenches have become a little more submissive.

THATCHER FUNERAL

Overnight mourners have been camping besides St Paul’s Cathedral to participate in the public mourning of Baroness Thatcher. Her funeral arrangements were denounced by Lord Mandelson last night, as the New Statesman reports. New Labour “over-inhaled” Thatcherism, he told the audience at a Policy Exchange event where he appeared with Michael Gove. Still, the disapproval of the Left wouldn’t leave Lady Thatcher “the slightest bit upset”, as William Hague pointed out in a speech last night. As the Mail reports, he used his address at the Lord Mayor’s Easter Banquet to call for Britain to rediscover the “firmness of purpose” it exhibited in her era.

George Galloway’s attempt to prevent the cancellation of PMQs came to naught last night, although he did win the backing of 14 Labour MPs. But while parliamentarians have no excuse for not attending, the USA has discovered plenty. President Obama had declined an invitation even before the Boston bombing and the presence of both Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger in the delegation masks the absence of any current politician of the front rank, as the FT (£) reports. So much for the special relationship. Eleven serving prime ministers will attend, though, ranging from Canada’s Stephen Harper to Mario Monti of Italy.

The debate continues in this morning’s papers over Lady Thatcher’s legacy. The Mail‘s leader argues “Cameron must learn from the Lady”, while the Times‘ (£) leader argues that it, and modern Fleet Street, owes its existence to her reforms. Contrast that with the threats Harriet Harman is making over press regulation at present (see below), and you’ll see how far British politics has shifted since she left the stage. In the Mail Robin Harris argued that because she “slew the dragons” of economic inefficiency, she needs no heir, indeed”the meek can inherit the earth”. Writing for us, Robin Renwick argues that Lady Thatcher played a key role in ending apartheid. In the Times (£), Danny Finkelstein makes the point that her generation was the last in British politics whose outlook was informed by World War Two, hence its combative nature. While those arguments will continue for many years, let’s hope that the nation can bid its farewell today with order, decorum and dignity.

IMF CALL FOR PLAN A RETHINK

In an age where economic jousting between the opposing frontbenches consists largely of listing third-party supporters, the apparent defection of the IMF to Ed Balls’ side of the House is a cause for concern for the Chancellor. Yesterday’s statement was a carefully qualified one – “in the face of very weak private demand, it may be time to consider adjusting the original fiscal consolidation plan” – but as Philip Aldrick notes, it signifies an end of the love affair between George and the IMF.

As the FT (£) notes, Treasury sources are pointing out that the fiscal consolidation plan is not particularly demanding, in fact it is less severe than that of the Obama administration in Washington. The Chancellor’s allies say the economy has turned a corner and that positive business confidence numbers recently will start to show up in the growth figures by the end of the year. If so, the IMF may owe their old friend an apology.

LABOUR LEAD SLIPS

What a difference a week makes. In the last seven days, the Labour lead has slipped from 14pts to 7pts according to a Sun/YouGov poll. The new numbers put the Tories on 33pc with Labour on 40pc and Ukip out-polling the Lib Dems by 1pt on 11pc. Coming on the back of yesterday’s Guardian/ICM poll which put his personal rating at a record low of -23pc, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for Red Ed (and nor are the words of the unnamed senior party member who tells us that the party’s welfare policies are “complete nonsense”).

What can he do to reverse the trend? Lord Ashcroft has some timely advice on ConservativeHome this morning. Listen to the New Labour critics, find and articulate a message, and show you understand the fear of reckless borrowing, he writes. One more thing – “what are you going to do about Ed Balls? Since he was part of the Brownite team who were in charge when it all went wrong – to put it as neutrally as possible – it is hard for you to claim Labour have learnt the right lessons and moved on while he remains Shadow Chancellor.”

But it isn’t all bad news. The Times (£) reports that Ed and Mr Tony will be meeting up to build bridges in “the next few days” while, as Mary Riddell writes, there are some on the Left who believe that “Titanium Ed” can pick up where the Iron Lady left off and be a champion for bold ideas in British public life:

“Mr Miliband buys the argument, made by Jon Cruddas and others, that Labour had become decoupled from the nation’s past and ceded patriotism, history and heritage to the Tories. Hence his mission to reshape Britain’s high streets and to give local power back to the small businessmen, councillors and aldermen whose writ once prevailed in Thatcher’s Grantham.”

HARMAN THREATENS PRESS

The press reforms following the Leveson report are becoming increasingly shambolic. As we report, Maria Miller told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that some papers and magazines may choose to remain outside of the regulatory system, a situation which Philip Davies called “a farce…you have set up this system and nobody is signing up for it.” But wait! Harriet Harman then appeared and told the committee that Labour would back “full-on statutory regulation” if papers did not sign up to the compromise deal, as the Times (£) notes. Who’s in charge? It’s tempting to think that Mrs Harman’s clout is at least as great, given that, of the pair, she was involved in finalising the form of the Royal Charter in that late night session with Ed, Nick and Oliver Letwin.

AWARD.GOV

Britain’s greatest design icon? As Twitter followers will know, I’m a Shard fan. The building-cum-weather gauge lost out in the recent Designs of the Year awards, though. Instead the winner of the annual award was…the gov.uk website. As the Independent reports, it also beat off competition from the Olympic Caulderon and Louis Vuitton.

TWEETS AND TWITS

Gavin Shuker asking the big questions of our time:

@gavinshuker:Anyone had a good experience of reusable nappies? Asking in a wholly professional capacity, as Shadow Waste Minister, obviously.

TOP COMMENT

In the Telegraph

Mary Riddell – What Titanium Ed Miliband and the Iron Lady have in common

Tim Stanley – Boston Marathon bombings: America the vulnerable

Robin Renwick – Margaret Thatcher’s vital role in ending apartheid

Telegraph View – Human decency will always win through

Best of the Rest

Daniel Finkelstein in The Times (£) - Today we bury the last prime minister of WWII

Robin Harris in the Daily Mail - She slew dragons. Now the meek can inherit the earth

Richard Venn in the FT (£) - Cameron cannot revive Thatcherism

Seamus Milne in The Guardian - It’s time to bury not just Thatcher – but Thatcherism

THE AGENDA

Today: Baroness Thatcher’s funeral. Coffin leaves Palace of Westminster by hearse at 10:00; arrives at St Clement Danes 10:15; transferred to gun carriage at 10:25; leaves St Clement Danes at 10:33 when processional minute gun firing begins at Tower of London. Funeral service starts at 11:00 and is due to finish at 11:55. Guests begin arriving at Guildhall reception around 12:10. St Paul’s Cathedral, Saint Paul’s Churchyard, London.

Conservative knives out for George Osborne

The Chancellor has been personally blamed for the party’s misfortunes and poor opinion poll ratings, with senior figures warning that change is needed ahead of the general election.

There are renewed calls for Mr Osborne to give up his role coordinating the party’s campaigning, as fears mount of disastrous results in May’s English local elections.

Some critics are demanding that he should be replaced as Chancellor by William Hague, the Foreign Secretary. Such a move would be a dramatic shift for the Prime Minister, as Mr Osborne is his closest political ally.

One senior Conservative at the heart of the party, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Telegraph: “George is the problem.”

Concerns centre on what is perceived to be his failure to understand the middle classes, their values, and their economic struggle.

More….

Osborne eases the pressure with canny budget

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).

BREAKING NEWS: The Chancellor has been touring the studios this morning discussing yesterday’s Budget. The good news? Well, as he told ITV’s Daybreak “it could be a lot worse”. He emphasised his Aspiration Nation credentials adding:

“We have made a lot of mistakes as a country, over many years, building up these debts. But my determination is not to run away but to confront them head on.

“We’re doing everything we can in very difficult times – which I don’t excuse, people know these are difficult times – to help all those families who aspire to work hard and get on.”

Ed Balls countered telling the Today programme that the Chancellor lacked direction and his housing strategy was a gamble:

“It is not really an approach at all at the moment, the deficit is hugely high and it is not changing…Unless the houses are there for people to actually go and buy this could lead to higher prices rather than jobs and growth in the housing market. It might work, but I fear it may not.”

THE POLITICAL BUDGET

Good morning. The Mail‘s Maggie montage made George Osborne choke on his toast, he says, but I suspect he’ll be broadly pleased with the headlines and comment on his Budget. There are plenty of criticisms about either specific measures – the turbo boost for housing in particular – or the tone – too much politics, not enough economics – but the overall verdict is a gentle “meh!” And that suits Mr Osborne just fine. Laurels and flattery of the sort Jim Sheridan prefers were never likely; he’ll be glad that no one has yet spotted an omnishambolic stinker. There is broad acceptance that the situation is exceptional and so beyond his powers.

Politically, has he improved his position? Tory backbenchers appreciate his voter-friendly measures, but he hasn’t won over the Reaganites and radicals: David Davis piled in last night. Mr Osborne is helped by Labour’s troubles. Ed Miliband had a poor outing, and despite Ed Balls’ best efforts this morning, no one is taking what Labour says seriously. Conservatives who want to win the next election should be pleased that the Chancellor has that objective so obviously in mind. That will not satisfy the purists who wish him to concentrate on the vital task of getting out of the mire. But if the criticism of Mr Osborne has been that he is not doing enough to get the Tories back on track to win, then yesterday was a big step towards restoring his reputation as a tactician.

The Mail’s hagiography aside, the papers are generally on-board this morning. The glaring exception is the Sun whose front-page fuses its campaign on press freedom with a sarcastic celebration of the growth rate, national debt and swift recovery. Elsewhere, reaction falls between two stools. The Times (£) praises the Chancellor’s “politically astute” Budget, but concedes that its success is rather out of his hands, depending on a combination of Mark Carney and private industry. While our leader would have liked the Chancellor to go further, again noting that this was “as much a political as an economic Budget”. As such, it has left Labour rather exposed. Max Hastings‘ evisceration of Ed Balls in today’s Mail points out that at least the Coalition are attempting to tackle the issues of the day, something which has eluded Labour thus-far.

There was a suspicion that the Chancellor had kept some of his powder dry beforE the big announcement, given the bitty nature of many of the leaks. It proved unfounded, as you can see from our at a glance guide. Despite the FT‘s (£) assessment that the Tory backbenches were satisfied with their lot, Patrick Wintour writes in his Guardian column (not online), “this was George Osborne’s last chance to get the economy growing by the time of the next election. Yet the net effect on growth of the measures in this Budget is precisely zero.” Jeremy Warner makes a similar point writing for us, criticising the “faintly incoherent ‘curiosity shop’ of measures [which] in macro-economic terms was pretty much a non-event.” That suggests that whatever the tactical success, this Budget may eventually appear to be a missed opportunity economically. With no joy coming from a eurozone which is still mired in internal chaos, the fact that the Chancellor has not attempted to act as a rainmaker will eventually irk backbenchers. How many will eventually come to the view of critics like Peter Oborne? He puts it bluntly:

“We can fairly conclude that the Chancellor has failed. Mr Osborne has talked of austerity ever since his ‘emergency Budget’ almost three years ago. But at no stage has he delivered it, or anything like it. He has lacked the courage to challenge Mr Brown’s inheritance. His general approach to the economy has been the same – massive spending, tempered by deceit.”

BUDGET WINNERS (CONT)

Oddly, most lists miss off Lindsay Hoyle, the Deputy Speaker, who stole the show with his sarcastic asides (video here). He was particularly watchful where Ed Balls was concerned, warning him not to “let this become a circus”, and winning cheers from Tory benches more used to John Bercow’s lasseiz-faire approach to Mr Balls’ constant burblings. So who is this new political hero? Fortunately the Guardian have produced a guide which begins: “Appearance: A supply teacher on a Friday afternoon.”

TREASURY EXTENDS EMPIRE INTO WELFARE

The Times (£) describe the setting of an annual cap on welfare bills as a “power grab” by the Treasury. There will be no details until June’s Spending Review is completed, and Iain Duncan Smith will be consulted, but the current plan would allow the Treasury to set spending limits in specific areas (including pensioner benefits), which would lead to savings having to be made elsewhere if the limit was breached.

THE LEAK THAT WASN’T

Red faces at the Evening Standard over the leaking of the Budget on the paper’s Twitter account prior to George Osborne standing up. A staff member has been suspended there, an apology issued, and the Treasury has launched its own inquiry. Ed Balls waved around a facsimile of the paper’s front-page while his leader was speaking yesterday, suggesting impropriety, but as Tom Chivers argued on our Blogs site, accidents do happen:

“I would, though, like to pre-empt the investigation by the Standard. I can guess who the ‘person responsible’ was, and how it happened: the person responsible would have been someone no older than 25, who tweets the front page every day, and who is probably paid about £18,000 a year on a temp contract to be in charge of the social media stuff. He or she would have tweeted the front page as usual, because it wouldn’t have occurred to them that this is a Special Front Page. And now they’re getting the heat from a whole country.

TOO MANY TWEETS

And if the Standard incident wasn’t sufficient to prove Dave’s maxim that “too many tweets make a twat”, here’s Lord Heseltine’s enthusiastic reaction to hearing that George has just joined, reported in the Mail: “that’s wonderful for him”. Stephen Glover went further, arguing that joining Twitter was the only way the Chancellor could have made himself look more vacuous:

“When you are putting the finishing touches to a make-or-break Budget speech, and having an anxious last word with the Chief Secretary, you don’t have time to tweet. It was probably done by one of the savvy female advisers who tend to his needs. So we have a vacuous tweet which almost certainly wasn’t even written by the public personage who purported to send it. What on earth is the point of that?”

ECHOES OF BOSNIA

Despite the introspection occasioned by the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, Britain appears set on the path to greater military commitments in Syria. Speaking at PMQs, Dave complained that the failure of the EU to allow Britain and France to arm Syrian rebels was “very familiar [owing] to the discussions we had about Bosnia and the appalling events that followed”. As the Times (£) reports, he added that the current diplomatic measures were not working and “this hateful regime is still in place”. But the lesson from Bosnia was not that arming local warlords was an effective way to bring peace, it was that swifter direct military intervention by Western nations would have been the only way to bring about regime change and impose peace on the participants without huge non-military casualties. There are more recent examples which will tell the Prime Minister how popular that is domestically.

SHARES FOR RIGHTS DEFEATED

It didn’t take long for one of the Government’s cunning plans to unravel post-Budget. In fact, it took just hours. The scheme which would allow employees to exchange employment rights for shares, proffered on the back of the Beecroft report, was voted down in the House of Lords last night. Gus O’Donnell compared the £2,000 minimum value of the shares offered to 20 pieces of silver. Appropriately enough, opposition to this section of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill was led by the aptly named Lord Pannick, as we report.

DOWNING STREET READY TO WAR OVER REGULATION

In a legal battle between Downing Street and Fleet Street, the press who would lose, a Number 10 source has told the Sun. A potential legal grey area has arisen thanks to the Government’s insistence that a paper which refuses to join the new regulatory system could still be fined by it as though it were a member. Meanwhile, across the pond, the New York Times has come out against the regulation reforms with a thumping editorial which notes that “an unfettered press is essential to democracy”. What Fleet Street wouldn’t give for the First Amendment.

OSBORNE TOLD DAVE TO QUIT

The Chancellor’s sometimes mystifying status as an adept strategist and reader of the runes was put into some context by Dave at a Downing Street reception for Christian groups last night. As Bloomberg reports, the Prime Minister recounted the advice his friend gave him in the leadership contest: “George Osborne told me to call it off, it wasn’t going anywhere.”

SOMETHING TO WINE ABOUT

No wonder the Coalition cuts frequently find Labour front-benchers having an attack of the vapours. There is a particularly disturbing one due today, as Richard Kay notes. The Government’s wine cellar which had continued to grow under Labour has financed itself by auction since 2010. If you have a spare £30,000, there are six bottles of Chateau Latour 1961 going spare

TWEETS AND TWITS

Tom Harris’s commitment to open government wavers:

@TomHarrisMP: Latest FoI request to Ipsa: which MPs are sharing a flat? Just waiting for one asking which MPs floss at night. Who are these people?

TOP COMMENT

In the Telegraph

Peter Oborne – Labour made the mess, but the Tories are only making it worse

Jeremy Warner – A long, slow walk to recovery

Michael Deacon – We’re a breed apart – and MPs hate us for it

Telegraph View – The economy needs a shove, not a push

Best of the Rest

Martin Kettle in The Guardian – Osborne’s in the results game, and he’s shooting for 2015

Steve Richards in The Independent – Trapped by hid own ideology, the Chancellor is lonelier than ever

Max Hastings in the Daily Mail – George may seem unlovable but the smirking alternative would lead us to perdition

Patrick O’Flynn in the Daily Express – A Budget for those who play by the rules

THE AGENDA

09:00 am: Nick Clegg call-in on LBC 97.3.

09:30 am: Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) post-Budget briefing. Speakers include Mark Littlewood and Philip Booth of IEA, Matthew Sinclair, of TPA, and Kwasi Kwarteng MP . Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North Street.

09:30 am: Public sector borrowing figures for February are published by the Office for National Statistics.

09:30 am: Retail sales figures for February are published by the Office for National Statistics.

10:15 am: Education Secretary Michael Gove announcement on teaching schools. Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Broad Sanctuary.

11:30 am: Foreign Secretary William Hague gives quarterly oral statement on Afghanistan. House of Commons.

01:00 pm: Institute for Fiscal Studies post-Budget briefing. Building Centre, Store Street.

02:00 pm: Ministerial statement at Holyrood on independence referendum, including confirmation of the date. Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh.

David Cameron: Argentina must respect the wishes of the Falkland Islanders

The Prime Minister said that Argentina must take “careful note” of the referendum result and reiterated that Britain will “always be there to defend” the Falkland Islanders.

In a clear warning to Argentina, Mr Cameron said that the Falkland islanders “couldn’t have spoken more clearly”.

“They want to remain British and that view should be respected by everybody, including by Argentina,” the Prime Minister said.

Of the1,517 votes cast during the two-day referendum, 1,513 were in favour, while just three votes were against. Turnout in the vote was 92 per cent.

The referendum follows growing pressure from Argentina over its claims to the islands 31 years after the Falklands war.

More….

Labour poll lead surges as Coalition economic strategy under fire

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).

Good morning. The run-up to the Budget looks like it’s going to be a grind for George Osborne. The latest ICM poll for the Guardian gives Labour a whacking lead, and puts them back in front on the economy, a measure the Chancellor’s team liked to remind us remained in their favour. The Tories poll only 29pc (-4pc on January) with Labour on 41pc (+3pc), the 12pt gap is the largest lead since May 2003 and Blair’s Iraq bounce. Rachel Sylvester has become the latest to chronicle the pressure he is coming under to DO SOMETHING!!! Some of it is ideological manoeuvring by Reaganite Tories wanting self-financing tax cuts. Some of it is incipient panic from backbenchers who fear for their seats. And some of it is simply a response to the confusion surrounding the economy: even Jeremy Warner admits he doesn’t know what’s going on. Amid all that the Chancellor by all accounts maintains a reassuring equanimity. Those expecting a big bang shouldn’t hold their breaths – he’s not a Reaganite and doubts that there’s a magic bullet hidden in the Treasury. As I set out in my column, he believes there’s no alternative to the hard road ahead.

It isn’t only on Reganite measures which the Coalition are lacking, however. This morning’s reports into capital spending also make for concerning reading. The FT (£) notes that less that one fifth of the infrastructure projects listed in the national infrastructure plan are being built. The Independent concentrates on the completion rate – only seven of the 576 projects have been finished. Although capital spending was cut sharply initially, the Coalition plan was always to skew spending towards infrastructure over the life of this Parliament (easier to cut post-2015), the numbers hardly inspire confidence in their New Deal credentials.

Frustration with the Chancellor’s approach abounds. Vince Cable, admittedly not the most loyal of lieutenants, is in the FT (£) this morning complaining that the Chancellor needs to borrow more to fund capital investment and issuing a hands-off warning over parts of his departmental budget. Attacks from the blue corner are also becoming bolder. Douglas Carswell’s article on “Osbrownomics” for us at the weekend may be argued away as a statement of the awkward squad’s position, but George Freeman’s argument on ConservativeHome yesterday that the Chancellor’s policies help the same cartel of big firms without doing enough for entrepreneurs packs a punch given his well regarded work for the Coalition on life sciences strategy.

The call for boldness is becoming louder. I use my column to argue that voters don’t want a return to Labour’s credit fuelled boom, it’s the future which counts:

“We know we are poorer, and cannot expect a return to the credit-fuelled artificial wealth that kept us going for more than a decade. However the politicians frame the question, we will surely vote on the prospects for our future prosperity.”

HAGUE CONDEMNS NUCLEAR TEST

Overnight, North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear weapon in an underground explosion which has been strongly condemned by the UK. William Hague made a statement this morning claiming that the tests only serve to “increase regional tension” and promising a “robust response”. The UN Security Council is meeting urgently this morning. For the latest updates, check Telegraph Online.

BALLS: LABOUR’S REFERENDUM POLICY “STUPID”

If the Conservative leadership has it bad with troublesome backbenchers, spare a thought for Ed who has a very troublesome frontbencher to deal with. Labour would be “stupid” to fight the next election opposed to an in/out referendum on the EU, according to Ed Balls. We report that the shadow chancellor’s interview with the Yorkshire Post included his belief that Labour could go into the next election neither as the status-quo party nor the anti-referendum party. How that squares with Ed’s assertion that “we don’t want an in/out referendum” is anyone’s guess.

PRESS REGULATION TO PROCEED BY ROYAL COMMISSION

Maria Miller will outline the details of the new press watchdog today, and the odds look good on all-party agreement to a regulatory solution. Labour have dropped their insistence that press regulation proceeds by legislation rather than Royal Charter, the Sun reports.

MID STAFFORDSHIRE NET CAST WIDER

A further nine hospitals are under investigation for their suspiciously high mortality rates, bringing the total being investigated in the wake of the Francis report to 14. Our calculations indicate that as many as 6,000 patients may have died above and beyond the numbers which would normally be expected. More pressure on Sir David Nicholson, and anecdotal evidence to suggest that malpractice occurred both before and after the switch between governments. Not a proud day for Westminster or Whitehall.

EASTLEIGH

Not the most auspicious of starts for Maria Hutchings in Eastleigh – the Times (£) reports that her description of the town on her campaign website was a copy and paste job from Wikipedia. While the Lib Dems were crowing about that, Nick Clegg was supporting their candidate Mike Thornton on the campaign trail. Refusing to apologise for Chris Huhne, he called him “an extremely good local MP”, which will probably go down just as well. The FT‘s (£) guide to the runners and riders finds the Lib Dems in a confident mood with a fortnight still to run. Still, if the Conservatives show anything like the steel of the Communities Secretary they should be fine. Eric Pickles was campaigning with Mrs Hutchings yesterday, and as the Eastleigh News‘s picture demonstrates, showed those Southern wimps how it’s done, braving the sleet and snow with no coat, his jacket undone and a tie clip the only concession to the ravages of the elements. They breed ‘em tough in Yorkshire.

FSA HEAD URGES CHICKEN AND PORK INVESTIGATION

In an interview with us, Catherine Brown, head of the Food Standards Agency, has called for testing of chicken and pork products once the beef/horse confusion is cleared up. She is worried that cross-contamination in the wider food chain. Sensing the need to communicate a clear message, she added that eating Bute was probably fine, although she would not eat a Findus lasagne herself. Horses for courses, I suppose.

A NUCLEAR APPROACH TO THE PUBLIC BALANCE SHEET

EDF and the Government are in talks over a possible public guarantee for some of the costs involved in building a new generation of nuclear power stations, the FT (£) reports. The arrangement would see the Treasury underwriting some of EDF’s borrowing, a move which should make the remaining debt more attractive for lenders, and hence cheaper for EDF. For a government which was not going to offer public subsidies for nuclear, this looks awfully like a public subsidy for nuclear. Then again, the UK Guarantees Scheme was set up to underwrite £40bn of infrastructure investments, and if the slow development rate is anything to go by, it can’t have been very busy so far.

LIES, DAMNED LIES AND IMMIGRATION SATISTICS

The Government is unable to share its predictions on the number of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants likely to head to Britain once the ban lapses because to do so would be “not helpful”, Mark Harper told Parliament yesterday. That makes a change from Eric Pickles being unable to share the estimates because he was “not confident” in them, and the Home Office source we cite who insists that the projections do not exist. No update on how the “Britain: it’s rubbish” advertising campaign was coming along either, curiously.

THE NEW NHS

Reform are hosting a conference on the shape of the new NHS at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists this afternoon. Jeremy Hunt is on at 2pm giving a speech on his health and social care vision. He is followed by Liz Kendall at 4:45pm. She’ll give the keynote speech for Labour, questioning whether either the Coalition plans or the recommendations from the Francis report will succeed in in putting the public at the heart of the NHS.

BARWELL DISCRIMINATION BILL PASSES THIRD LORDS READING

Gavin Barwell’s Bill to end mental health discrimination made it through its third Lords reading yesterday. On the grounds that “mental health should be treated on a par with physical health”, the Bill removes automatic blocks on those who receive treatment for mental health disorders from sitting on a jury, serving as a company director, or sitting as an MP after six months of being sectioned. Who says compassionate Conservatism is dead?

DAVID COMBERON

Clearly inspired by last month’s reception for London Men’s Fashion Week, David Cameron sported an innovative new hair style in the Commons yesterday. D Dave combined his standard quiff parting with a spot of back combing to create a two parting feast for the eye, or, as the Sun dubbed it, a “sneaky ploy” to cover his bald spot. As Richard Kay writes in the Mail, the PM is becoming increasingly image conscious – he has just undergone 50 training sessions with celebrity fitness guru Matt Roberts worth £7,500, according to the register of member’s interests.

TWEETS AND TWITS

Oh dear, Conor Burns complains that Bad Dave was in Parliament yesterday. Calm down, dear…:

@Conor_BurnsMP: PM does himself no favours in EU statement with jokes about handbags linked to reference to gay marriage.”

POLL WATCH

Guardian / ICM: Con 29%, Lab 41%, Lib Dem 13%, Ukip 9%

TOP COMMENT

In the Telegraph

Benedict Brogan – The voters know it’s a hard road, but they won’t want to turn back

Peter Stanford – The Pope who was not afraid to say sorry

Phillip Johnson – Why is it the State’s job to pay for our care?

Telegraph View – A Pope of surprises, and none more than his last

Best of the rest

Rachel Sylvester in The Times (£) – Budget poker: Osborne needs a trump card

Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail – A betrayal of Tory values that shatters the hopes of ordinary families

Polly Toynbee in The Guardian – Jeremy Hunt’s smoke and mirrors will not solve the care crisis

Gideon Rachman in the FT (£) – A rare sighting of good news in Europe

THE AGENDA

09.30 am: The ONS publishes its latest inflation figures for January

09.30 am: Gus O’Donnell gives evidence on the future of the civil service to the Public Administration Committee.

09.30 am: Lord Heseltine appears at the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.

09.30 am: Robert Francis, chair of the Mid Staffs inquiry, appears before the Health Select Committee.

11.30 am: Nick Clegg answers Deputy PMQs in the Commons.

02:05 pm: Jeremy Hunt speaks at a Reform conference on the future of the NHS, followed by Liz Kendall at 4:45.

02:20 pm: The Joint Committee on Human Rights take evidence on the government’s human rights policy from Chris Grayling, followed by his predecessor Ken Clarke at 15.45.

William Hague: we’ll stand up to Argentine bullies over Falklands

The Foreign Secretary dismissed the Buenos Aires Government’s claim on the South Atlantic islands as a “fantasy”.

“Britain is a country which supports the right of people to determine their own future,” Mr Hague told The Sun newspaper.

“There should never be reward for bullying or threatening behaviour in international affairs – just as there never should be in our personal lives.”

The Foreign Secretary said the bullish claims to the Falklands by Christina Fernandez de Kirchener, the Argentine president, only made the islanders more determined to remain British.

Next month the Falklands will hold a referendum to decide whether the islands will stay in British hands.

More….

Tory unity faces its Waterloo over gay marriage

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).

Good morning. At around 7pm this evening, parliament will vote following a debate on the second reading of the Equal Marriage Act. The yawning divide between the Tory traditionalists and the Cameroons remains unbridged. At least 100 Conservative MPs look likely to vote against gay marriage, and with abstentions, the party looks likely to march fewer than half of its potential votes through the aye lobby. Our story about the joint letter to the Telegraph from George Osborne, Theresa May and William Hague notes that even in the Cabinet, the divides are stark. David Jones and Owen Paterson are against the bill, while Philip Hammond has been found something to do abroad, but IDS and Chris Grayling are behind it, according to the Mail. On the backbenches, Brian Binley’s blog heralding gay marriage as the worst thing since the “social tsunami of the 1960’s”, captures the mood of the antis. The Guardian‘s attempt to argue that a yes vote is the Thatcherite option appears to have fallen on unfertile ground.

How much this damages the Conservatives is a source of debate. Ask most backbenchers and they will tell hair-raising yarns of constituency association resigning en masse. The polling in today’s Sun also suggests a wounded party – 71pc think of the Conservatives as a divided party, Labour’s poll lead is now 15pts, and support for same sex marriage is soft, the margin of strong supporters exceeds strong opponents by only 4pc. ConservativeHome suggests the picture is a little brighter, YouGov’s Stephen Shakespeare discounts ComRes’s finding that 14pc of Tory voters would not vote for the party thanks to its stance.

The Conservative press is as divided as the party. The Times (£) comes out in support of Dave, although it cites Lord Melbourne’s dictum that nobody ever does something foolish except for some strong principle. The Mail, on the other hand, is unimpressed with “a distinctly unTory attempt to legislate in defiance of the facts of life”. G2‘s feature on the Tories recalls a party as bitterly divided as Labour were in the 1980’s. Dave is often accused of lacking fixed principles. Carried out in the teeth of fierce opposition, this is arguably the greatest conviction call of his leadership. His greatest challenge may be uniting the party again afterwards.

MID STAFFORDSHIRE SCANDAL NEEDS TORIES UNITED

The report into the scandalous neglect which occurred at two NHS Trust hospitals in Mid Staffordshire will be published tomorrow. A copy of the public inquiry’s findings will be handed to Jeremy Hunt this morning. Our story that some NHS bosses have long adopted a “hope that no one notices” approach in some areas demands a serious response. Sir David Nicholson, the NHS chief executive, will be particularly in the firing line, having had oversight of Mid Staffs in 2005. The Guardian’s profile suggests his ability to navigate the Byzantine management structure of the health service is a significant asset to the Government. Moreover, the Prime Minister has a serious opportunity to wrest Labour’s monopoly on the NHS from their grasp – these abuses happened on Labour’s watch. However, as I argue in today’s column, the headlines will stick to the Conservatives:

“Self-evidently what stands in the way of a compelling Tory offensive is not Cameron the confident Prime Minister, but Cameron the indifferent Conservative leader. No doubt his response to the Mid-Staffs report tomorrow will be statesmanlike, but on an issue of central importance to the voters, he needs to demonstrate that the party he leads is capable of having a conversation with the British people and not just itself.”

HUHNE PLEADS GUILTY

The full force of Fleet Street’s vitriol is unleashed on Chris Huhne this morning, following his guilty plea on a charge of perverting the course of justice yesterday. The Mail’s leader says it might have been possible to feel sorry for Mr Huhne were it not for “his brazen lies…indestructible arrogance and self-pity…[we] can breathe a sigh of relief that this ruthless liar will never hold public office again.” The personal nature of the case coverage is striking, as Rachel Sylvester argues in the Times (£), the division between the personal and the professional life of a politician is now fully submerged.

Focus now turns to the by-election in Eastleigh. Nigel Farage is threatening a star-turn, a move that would almost certainly keep the seat in the yellow column and crystallise Dave’s Ukip problem. There will be no coupon, and as the Mail predicts, a state of all out war looks likely as Dave has ordered his troops to “go for the kill”. He has no choice. Peter Oborne’s column makes the point that neither Coalition partner can afford to lose given the level of internal dissent on their benches:

“The truth is that the Prime Minister lacks the authority to attempt [a coupon election]. The Tory party in its present febrile and disloyal state would not allow it. Mr Cameron’s foot soldiers viscerally dislike the Coalition, and long to wage war on their Lib Dem enemies in Eastleigh (an emotion keenly reciprocated by many Lib Dems).”

TRIMMING THE THIN RED LINE

The problem with protected spending in big budgets like health, schools and international aid is that when you do need to cut, its the same departments suffering in each round. Now that the Treasury has launched another spending review,Whitehall departments can expect to have seen their budgets experience a total cut of around 30pc in real terms between 2010/11 and 2015/16, the FT (£) reports. The most sensitive of these areas is defence, particularly given Dave’s quasi-pledge to maintain spending levels. As we report, the MoD’s top mandarin appeared before the Public Accounts Committee yesterday, telling them that further cuts to troop numbers would be necessary if the departmental spending award did not rise.

Given the Prime Minister’s recent discovery of his inner Tony over Mali, troop cuts could be as operationally troubling as they would be politically difficult, but what else is there? The FT (£) reports that Philip Hammond, Theresa May, Chris Grayling and Vince Cable have all told George to back off, but Dave and Nick are keen to keep cutting departments in the same proportions already established. That leaves local government to face the music once more, and a foreign office which stands to see its budget halved between 2010 and 2018 if cuts continue at this pace. Nor is EU reform going to help. The Mail reports that Dave intends to demand £810m in cuts from the European Union budget over 2014 to 2020. MEPs are likely to vote through increases to the CAP tomorrow. He has his work cut out.

LOSING WHITEHALL

Dave is a “bad boss”, the Sun says, citing anonymous interviews ministers have given to Reform for their report on the future of the civil service. Whitehall is stuffed with “appalling staff [who are] promoted just to get rid of them”, while “people management is very bad”, another complains. The think tank also argues that civil servants are moved too frequently, performance is ignored and ministers appear powerless to drive the Whitehall machine.

ENERGY: MADE IN CHINA

With Britain’s electricity generation capacity set to fall sharply in coming years, yesterday’s news that Centrica was pulling out of a deal to build four new nuclear reactors raised the serious prospect of the lights going out in the next decade. Fortunately, the Chinese might be prepared to help EDF with the scheme, the Mail reports. Energy security in the hands of Beijing’s Communist portiburlo? Well, it’s that or more gas imports from Russia. The war is over, comrade.

FATHERS TO SHARE MATERNITY LEAVE

The Coalition’s brilliantly planned policy on childcare will include a facility to allow men and women to share the latter’s statutory allowance of maternity leave, we report. Reforms will also include a move to give greater access to children for fathers following divorce, which should at least keep Fathers4Justice off the roof for a while.

ALLEZ LES BLEUS

There’s praise for Dave’s Europe policy from an unexpected source in the Ephraim Hardcastle’s Mail column. Former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing has praised his EU speech for its “brilliant writing which no European diplomat would be able to emulate”.

TWEETS AND TWITS

The gloating tone of many tweets on Chris Huhne’s fall appals Zac Goldsmith:

@ZacGoldsmith: “Huhne has lost his career, family & freedom… over a mundane driving offence. I’m shocked by how much pleasure this has given so many.”

TOP COMMENT

In the Telegraph

Benedict Brogan – Voters won’t listen if the Tories talk only among themselves

Peter Oborne – Could he take one with him?

Philip Johnston – Why are we sending child benefit to Poland?

Telegraph View – Now let’s give the banks some credit

Best of the rest

Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail – How my friend Chris thought he was above the “little people” who abide by the rules

Rachel Sylvester in The Times (£) – There’s no such thing as an MP’s private life

Dominic Lawson in The Independent – A downfall that shows how much politicians will risk for power

Polly Toynbee in The Guardian – The gay marriage debate has uncovered a nest of bigots

THE AGENDA

TODAY: Mid-Staffs hospital inquiry report handed to Secretary of State. Robert Francis QC, Chairman of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry, will deliver his report to the Secretary of State today, the day before it is released to the public and Parliament.

09:30 am: Information Commissioner Christopher Graham gives evidence to the Commons Justice Committee. Wilson Room, Portcullis House.

10:00 am: Trial of Chris Huhne’s ex-wife Vicky Pryce over a speeding offence a decade ago. Pryce denies perverting the course of justice by taking Huhne’s points in March 2003.

10:30 am: Hacked Off and Press Council of Ireland give evidence on press regulation to the Commons Culture Committee. Thatcher Room, Portcullis House.

12:00 pm: Visit of US Vice President Joe Biden to London. Arrival at 10 Downing Street for talks with Nick Clegg, lunch with David Cameron and meeting of National Security Council. 10 Downing Street.

02:00 pm: Ed Miliband meets SPD candidate for German Chancellor election, Peer Steinbruck. Photo-op and brief statements. Leader of the Opposition’s Office, Norman Shaw South, Houses of Parliament.

04:00 pm: Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg gives evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee. Grimond Room, Portcullis House.

07:00 pm: Vote expected following debate on second reading of same-sex marriage bill. House of Commons.