MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).
Good morning. Things are looking grim today for Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems, and, by implication, the Coalition. The revelations about the party’s handling of the complaints against Lord Rennard are getting steadily worse, putting Mr Clegg’s leadership in doubt. A party that lectures others on transparency and equality seems to be short of either. Mr Clegg’s tone of self pity in his Sunday statement has not done him any favours. Eastleigh now looks up for grabs. The Tories are staying quiet so as not to get in the way of a Lib Dem slump they expect to become apparent in their polling. To lose a seat that is totemic of the Lib Dem ability to win in what should be Tory heartlands would be a shattering blow to Mr Clegg. Add that to the slump in the polls identified by ComRes this morning – they are on 8pc – and you can see how the Deputy PM’s position could suddenly look very precarious by the weekend. Westminster is full of rumours of manoeuvrings against him. If he were to be ejected by a panicked party, the future of the Coalition, which depends on the personal relationship between Mr Clegg and David Cameron, would be in doubt. Then there’s the bigger existential question for the Lib Dems: scandals, trials, political collapse, leadership rumblings, and the prospect of a general election wipe-out: can they survive as a party?
Mr Clegg’s defence is crumbling by the day. We reveal that Helen Jardine-Brown, the party’s former head of fundraising, was promised a call from Mr Clegg after making allegations against Lord Rennard four years ago. It never came. Likewise, the Independent reports that one of Mr Clegg’s advisers, Matthew Hannay, was present at one of the incidents. A letter sent by this paper to Jonny Oates, now Mr Clegg’s chief of staff, form the basis of the Mail’s detection of a “trail that leads to Clegg’s door”, although Mr Oates denies ever discussing them with the party leader. Lib Dem aides have clearly briefed the Guardian that Mr Clegg forced Lord Rennard to step down. But if the allegations were as nebulous as he would have us believe, then why demand his resignation? On the other hand, if there was more substance to them, why did Lord Rennard subsequently begin to appear at the party’s gender balance events? As the Times (£) reports, the police are now investigating.
What of the Lib Dems? The Times (£) leader questions whether they are still a “serious political party”, while Rachel Sylvester argues that the party has operated without serious scrutiny for years as it was nowhere near power. One constant across the press coverage is that the women of the party are very angry. While they are notoriously under-represented in the parliamentary party, there’s now the wider question of what will happen to their votes and membership subscriptions lower down the ranks.
As much as the Lib Dems appear to have dealt with serious accusations appallingly, that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it isn’t just the one party which has a women problem. Writing for us, Cathy Newman complains that the atmosphere at Westminster is frequently “more public school than public service”. The answer, she suggests, is more women MPs. That probably means more A-listing, in the short-term at least. Given the ungovernable nature of the Tory backbenches after the party’s 2010 foray into this area, all parties may be unwilling to see that as a solution at all.
WORKING FOR THE CLAMP-DOWN
Dave’s changed. He is interviewed in the Express today in a piece sub-titled “David Cameron vows to get tough on freeloading foreigners”. His hoodie hugging days suddenly seem rather distant. The intention seems to be to drive home his message on immigrants getting access to public services and benefits. “Let’s make sure ours is the toughest country, instead of the softest,” he tells Patrick O’Flynn and Macer Hall. The Chris Grayling plan limiting access to legal aid on residency grounds is the flagship measure, and he also promises a review of the benefits system to limit instant access. You question whether he may be making himself something of a hostage to fortune with this – given the EU’s rules on parity of treatment for citizens of other member states, shouldn’t this be a renegotiation objective, not a pledge for the here and now?
Immigrants aside, the Prime Minister backs his Chancellor, stands by his aid programme and appears to move back to his original position on an in/out vote, which is that there will be one in a coalition he leads, not just a Tory majority government. Any other innovations? The Prime Minister has asked ministers to “think like Conservatives”. Whatever next?
Blame it on the bankers. No, not a Labour stump speech from 2010, but the Chancellor’s thoughts yesterday when pushed on the British economy. Between excessive Labour borrowing (as he told the Commons) and poor borrowing decisions by British banks (as he told the Commission on Banking Standards), the Chancellor argued he had always been fighting an uphill battle. As the FT (£) reports, George is facing a triple whammy of his own at present – a weak domestic economy and deteriorating public finances are tied to political unrest on his backbenches (Iain Dale wrote yesterday that the hounds smell blood) . This, of course, delighted Ed Balls. As Quentin Letts writes, though, he couldn’t land the blow he ought to have done in yesterday’s debate:
“We had all agreed was going to be a debagging for Osbo’, a spanking for Mr Haughty… Balls shot his thunderbolt – and missed. And by the end of the 65-minute session Mr Osborne was strutting and peacocking and thoroughly at home. Odd place, Parliament. It often does the very opposite of what you expect.”
Having survived yesterday, the pressure may be off Mr Osborne briefly, given the negative overnight reaction of the US and Japanese markets to Italy’s hung parliament. And if you want a measure of how bad things are in the eurozone – the single currency even lost ground against Sterling overnight.
EASTLEIGH: LIB DEM LIFELINE?
It isn’t a great surprise to learn that the Lib Dem campaign in Eastleigh is, in the FT‘s (£) words, “leaning towards the local”. A constituency poll conducted by Populus for Lord Ashcroft finds Mike Thornton five points ahead, taking 33% to Maria Hutchings 28%. Ukip are in third with 21%, while Labour are well adrift on 12%. As the Guardian notes, neither the Lord Rennard accusations or the triple-A downgrade appear to have moved the needle a great deal. That seems to ignore the strong Ukip polling. With each of the big three grappling with its own party management or policy issues, the “a pox on all your houses” approach clearly has some popular appeal, something the Lib Dems know only too well.
LACK OF LEADERSHIP TO BLAME FOR WEST COAST FIASCO
A report today by the Public Accounts Committee on the West Coast franchise award blames ministers for a culture in the Department of Transport which lacked “leadership and common sense”, according to the FT (£). As worrying is an apparent inability to learn from previous departmental disasters like Metronet, to take advice from lawyers, or to have anybody in charge at all for a period of three months. No doubt this report will lead to awkward questions for ministers past and present in the department, but it will also be seized on by both sides of the civil service reform debate – was underfunding to blame, or was it the inability of ministers to bring in appointees with the leadership skills the natives lacked?
PEERS WATER DOWN DEFAMATION AMENDMENTS
Part of Lord Puttnam’s prospectus for press reform was removed before the Defamation Bill was passed yesterday – on third reading, peers removed the part of the Bill which would require newspapers to pay exemplary damages if they had not submitted articles to an external regulator before publication. The Times (£) reports that the Bill was unopposed once the amendment had been removed without a vote. It now returns to the Commons.
TORIES TO DEMAND NICHOLSON RESIGNATION
Sir David Nicholson will come under pressure from Conservative MPs to step down in the wake of the Mid Staffs crisis, we report. Around 20 MPs have signed an early day motion tabled by Charlotte Leslie calling for “accountability” over deaths at the NHS trust.
ID FOR EU
European residents in Britain will be charged £55 for a government identity card from later this year, with immigration minister Mark Harper hinting that any EU citizen living in Britain for more than three months would be required to carry one to obtain access to public services. The Guardian reports that a mandatory registration scheme is already being planned for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens, and may now be extended.
KERRY FAILS TO OFFER FALKLANDS BACKING
With John Kerry making London his first stop as the new US secretary of state, the special essential relationship must be as strong as ever, right? Not quite. As we report, Mr Kerry failed to offer Britain any backing on the question of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. He had nothing to add on Anglo-US relations with Kyrzakhstan, either.
Survivors of the Arctic convoys and Bomber Command’s campaigns will be recognised today by defence minister Mark Francois. We report that he will announce an Arctic Star and a clasp for Bomber Command veterans. The MoD estimates that up to 250,000 veterans or heirs will be eligible for the honour.
BUYING A ROUND? DON’T FORGET ONE FOR THE TAXMAN
The Chancellor has his orders. Forget petrol duty or the income tax threshold, “a beer tax rise must be halted so Brits can still afford a pint,” the Sun warns him. With the revenue from one pint in every three now headed to the Treasury’s coffers, and the beer duty escalator up 42pc since 2008, an additional rise of 6p in April has the paper frothed up. Yesterday, the Sun’s Page 3 girls were at the Westminster Arms launching the paper’s campaign. This morning, it’s the turn of the Tax Payer’s Alliance, followed, no doubt, by the no less glamorous Westminster press pack. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
TWEETS AND TWITS
@timloughton: “Just received email inviting me 2 speed dating event in Westminster at weekend-what if I come face to face with another MP from other side?”
In the Telegraph
Cathy Newman – Like a public school full of teenage boys…
Norman Lamont – A cap on bankers’ bonuses would be lunacy
Telegraph View – Serious questions over Nick Clegg’s judgement
Best of the rest
Rachel Sylvester in The Times (£) – The Lib Dems’ problem isn’t sex. It’s power
Alex Brummer in the Daily Mail – The great lie of our times
Janan Ganesh in the FT (£) – Voters expect Osborne to stay on his deficit course
Steve Richards in The Independent – A scandal that exposes Lib Dem inexperience
TODAY: Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announcement on medals.
09:30 am: Cabinet. 10 Downing Street.
09:30 am: Deputy children’s commissioner and Children’s Minister give evidence to the Commons Education Committee on child sexual abuse in gangs. Committee Room 5, House of Commons.
10:00 am: Mayor Boris Johnson visiting a small, independent clothes factory in Whitechapel. East End Manufacturing Ltd.
10:00 am: The Bank of England gives evidence to the Commons Treasury Committee of the February quarterly inflation report.
11:00 am: Taxpayers Alliance launches campaign to freeze beer duty. Westminster Arms, 9 Storey’s Gate, London.