Cameron shies from UKIP name calling

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).

BREAKING NEWS: Dave has been addressing the Tories’ Ukip problem during an appearance on ITV’s Daybreak. He sidestepped a question on talking to Nigel Farage after the next election, arguing that he would be going flat out for a Conservative victory. That said, he distanced himself from any smear campaign arguing “I’m not calling anybody anything”. The Prime Minister’s attitude contrasted to William Hague’s when he was interviewed on the Today programme earlier. Ukip are “not clowns [but] you can see why a former chancellor feels they have a clown like aspect” he argued.

IT’S THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

Good morning. The national polls are tilted in Labour’s favour, but it isn’t the nation headed to the voting booth tomorrow, it’s the blue half of Britain. As both the Mail and Independent graphics show, the councils voting are heartland areas for Dave. A total of 2,362 seats and 34 councils are in play, with the Tories holding 1,477 councillors and 29 authorities. While they will anticipate losing the ground gained as the result of their Brown Bounce four years ago, barring a catastrophe, the Tories will still emerge with the most councils and the most councillors. But how much headway will Ukip make, and to what extent will Labour be able to tempt the Tory base? The answers, judging by a ComRes poll published last night, are a lot and a little. As ITV reported, the pollsters put the Tories on 31pc in the area voting, with Labour on 24pc and Ukip polling 22pc with the Lib Dems on 12pc. In other words, the protest votes which benefited the Tories in 2009 have not returned to Labour, but have instead flooded to Ukip.

This is a problem for Dave and Ed. The decision of Priti Patel’s father to stand as a Ukip candidate is embarrassing for the Tory leadership, but as we report his insistence that they are not a racist party counteracts many of the aspersions cast his party’s way by CCHQ. Lord Tebbit’s Telegraph blog, in which he wrote that “one can hardly blame” disaffected Tories for voting Ukip, hasn’t helped either. That said, his central point ought to resonate with the high command. The Tories must stop being abusive towards the voters they will need to win back in 2015, he argues. Given that, stunts like the fake Ukip leafleting campaign, which Labour’s John Woodcock highlighted yesterday, won’t help. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of material – today’s papers bring a Ukip candidate dressed as Jimmy Saville, and another who has photoshopped himself next to Hitler (he defends himself in a blog for us). Rather, ridiculous personalities do not always entail ridiculous policies. And the refusal to engage with the latter as a result of the former is not helping the Conservatives.

That said, it may be worse for Ed come Friday. A failure to break through in the shires from a very low base would put him at the mercy of critics who say he has been too Left leaning since assuming the leadership. This is an existential question for Labour. If it is to be a One Nation party, it cannot rely solely on the votes from the Northern cities and inner London. As the Times (£) put it in its leader: “without a strong showing in the south tomorrow, Ed Miliband’s claims of One Nation politics will start to ring hollow.” But despite the urgency, Mr Miliband’s election campaign has not been a success. Yesterday’s admission that cutting VAT would require a rise in borrowing came too late to remedy the confused impression he gave on WATO on Monday. But, as Mary Riddell writes, it’s local activistm, rather than national leadership, which Ed hopes will see him home:

“For Ed Miliband, this new political fixation is not simply a local issue. Being tough on potholes and the causes of potholes is central to his strategy to win the general election. The pitted road to 2015 begins in Lancashire, where Labour holds only 18 of 86 seats on the county council. Seven months ago, that area was chosen as the party’s laboratory of future victory.”

SPENDING REVIEW CANNIBALISM

Whitehall’s equivalent of the Hunger Games will see at least five departments making raids on the budgets of the ringfenced departments, Tim Shipman blogs for the Mail. Yesterday’s news that Philip Hammond was keen to shift defence spending on to the NHS (he earned himself an indirect rebuke from Dave at yesterday’s political Cabinet) has prompted claims on NHS money from Local Government, the MoJ, Business and the Home Office. DfID is in the crosshairs of both the MoD and the Foreign Office, with the Guardian reporting that defence chiefs wish to divert aid money to cover humanitarian work undertaken by the military. Schools could also lose out, with the Independent reporting that the robust state of many schools’ budgets could entail an end to the ring-fence arrangement. Clearly the results will have a major impact on the strategy at the next election. With that in mind, No10 were furious yesterday at suggestions that the shake up of the Downing Street operation had resulted in Oliver Letwin being in some way marginalised – it hasn’t.

BRUSSELS FUND THREATENS DEFICIT REDUCTION

Banking stability? You don’t want to worry about that. George Osborne’s message to the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee yesterday was intended to caution against strengthening the banks through greater capital requirements. To do so would risk economic growth because it would reduce the funds available for lending, the FT (£) reports. Whatever happens with the formal mandate, it’s another example of the Chancellor’s expectation that the BoE will prioritise growth over its technical objectives.

At any rate, bank stability is causing more than a few sleepless nights at the Treasury at present. The pink ‘un also reports that the Chancellor may be forced to borrow £9bn to create a new bank crisis fund under EU financial reform laws. The move would blow up this year’s deficit reduction target. There are other ideas on the table, notably the Irish suggestion of depositor preference which would ensure other creditors lost money first, but Britain’s outright opposition is hopeless – the UK’s diplomatic position is described by one insider as “stranded”. Reassuringly familiar, that.

ROLL-UP! ROLL-UP! IT’S THE GREAT CIVIL SERVICE SALE

Cabinet Office plans will see dozens of state owned services privatised in the next two years, the Independent reports. The departments will be mutualised, becoming jointly owned by private investors and employees, with up to 75,000 staff moved off the Government’s payroll. Leading the charge is the Behavioural Insights Team, aka the Nudge Unit, which Francis Maude will announce today will be mutualised. Under the terms of the agreement, the new body will be guarunteed government contracts for a number of years, and will also be able to sell its services elsewhere. Whitehall’s IT department, as well as its HR and legal functions are also being considered for mutualisation. The unions are already calling it “privatisation by the backdoor”, but perhaps employees will be a little less willing to strike when there are shares being dangled in front of them.

DFID WINS HEARTS AND MINDS IN SOUTH AFRICA

With several other Whitehall departments eyeing up their budget, DfID could be forgiven for trying to trim to fat before the results of the spending review are announced. So it was with relief that Justine Greening could announce yesterday that “I have agreed with my South African counterparts that South Africa is now in a position to fund its own development.” Small problem, though. Said South African counterparts appear to be angry, rather than acquiescent. The news that the £15m aid spend in the country will disappear in 2015 was greeted robustly by Miss Greening’s counterpart in Pretoria. As the Guardian reports, a spokeswoman for the international relations department said: “ordinarily, the UK government should have informed the government of South Africa through official diplomatic channels of their intentions.” So were the South Africans told or not? Someone isn’t telling the truth.

DECLINE AND FALL

The UK would appear a “power in irreversible decline” if Scotland voted for independence, the Foreign Affairs Committee reported yesterday. The MPs argued that everything from the British seat on the security council to th special relationship would be up for review. Moreoverm, the Scots themselves would still need to make policy with one eye on the rump of the UK given that “it is difficult not to conclude that the notion of a truly independent Scottish foreign policy is in many ways a misnomer,” the MPs concluded.

PUBLIC JOIN CHARTER OPPOSITION

Only 16pc of the public believe that politicians ought to be given the power to change any Royal Charter settlement on press regulation, with 67pc opposed, the Mail reports. A poll by Survation also found that 76pc thought that any settlement ought to be opened up to a public consultation.

TWEETS AND TWITS

Chris Heaton-Harris, he’s here all week…:

@chhcalling: Breaking: Cartoonist found dead in home. Details are sketchy.

TOP COMMENT

In the Telegraph

Mary Riddell – Labour is betting everything on its new brand of pothole politics

Anthony Seldon – Gove is winning the hearts of state heads

Joan Bakewell – Young IDS should pick his battles with care

Telegraph View – The party of protest is in pole position

Best of the rest

Alice Thomson in The Times (£) – If you think your council’s poor, think again

Dan Hodges in the Daily Mail – Cameron’s Chumocracy

Matthew Norman in The Independent – A party political broadcast by the Tories: prison’s like holiday camp

Seumas Milne in The Guardian – Miliband will fail if he locks himself into Tory austerity

THE AGENDA

Today: State visit to the UK by the President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

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

12:00 pm: Rocker Brian May dresses up as a badger to protest against culling. May will lead a five-minute ‘flashmob’ and the team will dance to May’s The Badger Song. Outside Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

12:45 pm: John Whittingdale MP at BPG lunch. The chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee will speak to members of the Broadcasting Press Guild, Little Italy, 21 Frith Street, Soho.

03:00 pm: Education Department strike. Members of the Public and Commercial Services union at the DfE in England stage a two-hour strike from 3pm in a row over office closures and jobs.

Tories benefit from mutual mid-term blues

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).

Good morning. If the mid-term local elections are as bad as it gets then David Cameron will not be too unhappy this morning. Nobody is having a good campaign. Ed Miliband pressed the self-destruct button in his World at One interview with Martha Kearney yesterday. There were two problems – tone and content. The tone was too excitable, lacking in gravitas. As Peter Kellner writes in the Times (£), “the Labour leader sounded shrill when he should have been statesmanlike, tetchy when he needed to be calm.” And while there’s plenty of time to correct the tone before the next general election, the message is in equally bad shape. Ed refused eight times to say whether he would borrow in the short-term to fund projects aimed at economic growth. Then there was the debut of the winsome, if surprising, position that things were so bad nothing much he or anybody else could do would make a difference. The Sun reproduces the quote in full as its headline – “Are our problems so deep nobody can actually make a difference to them? My emphatic answer is yes.” It may not have been what Mr Miliband meant to say, but its one of the perils of a rhetorical style which relies on repackaging interviewers’ questions into a question you would rather answer.

 

Dave can be grateful for Labour’s confusion on the economy. A ComRes poll in the Independent finds that 58pc have lost faith in austerity (as do 23pc of Conservative supporters), by implication a coherent alternative would gain serious electoral traction, especially as the economy remains the main concern of voters. In its absence, the Tories are continuing to claw their way back in the polls. The Independent/ComRes survey found the gap down from 10pts to 6pts (Con 32pc, Lab 38pc, Ukip 13pc, Lib Dem 9pc), while the Sun/YouGov poll makes the gap 9pts (Con 30%, Lab 39%, Ukip 14%, Lib Dem 11%). It may seem the perverse result of a slow recovery, but as Janan Ganesh writes in the FT (£), the Tories may be able to fail to victory:

 

“When he was elected to lead the Tories in 2005, near the peak of the boom, Mr Cameron was all sunny charm and harmlessly waffly noblesse oblige. He is now relying on people’s sheer economic nervousness – their preference for the reality of slow growth over other imaginable terrors – to keep him in power. It is a grim showing for eight years of leadership but, in the circumstances, it is a serviceable political strategy. There are eight quarters to go until the next election. The Tories can win it without a thriving economy, and they can lose it with one.”

 

And what of Ukip? Their strong showing across both polls indicates a strong showing on Thursday, but it is hard to think that the levels of scrutiny their candidates are under will not have a long term consequence. Images like that on the Mirror front page, of a council candidate allegedly giving a Nazi salute, hardly establish mainstream credentials. Boris told Dave to tone down the rhetoric yesterday, particularly the “ill-advised insults”, as the Evening Standard reports. Dave, in the meantime, had come over all relaxed, painting the contest as a “fight between red and blue corners”. In other words, vote purple, get red. Of course, if the only thing that’s worse than being talked about is not being talked about, the Lib Dems are faring particularly poorly. It’s not just the Tories with the mid-term blues.

 

 

CLEGG: R.I.P. COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM

Radio’s Nick Clegg takes his turn in the WATO hotseat today, but he may find the day’s toughest questions come at this morning’s Cabinet meeting. The Deputy Prime Minister accused Dave of “pulling to the right” over benefit reforms, human rights and green issues yesterday in an article for Liberal Democrat Voice, as we report. Calling the end of compassionate conservatism, he wrote that “despite millions of ordinary families feeling the pinch, the Conservatives resist making the tax and welfare systems fairer still.” Not very coalitious of him.

 

CLAMOUR GROWS FOR PRESS ALTERNATIVE

 

Following Lord Wakeham’s comments yesterday, Peter Lilley has added his voice to those asking the Prime Minister to give due consideration to proposals on press regulation put forward by Fleet Street. As the Times (£) reports, Philip Davies, John Redwood (who praises “a very sporting offer from the press”) and Conor Burns have also asked Dave to tread carefully. And there’s signs that he’s listening – the plan to present the proposed Royal Charter at the next meeting of the Privy Council may be delayed by at least a month.

 

LETWIN AXED AS MANIFESTO CHIEF

 

The relentless rise of Jo Johnson continues a pace this morning. The Sun claims that Oliver Letwin has been relieved of manifesto duties with the brief passed on to Jo-Jo. The rationale, apparently, is that “[Mr Letwin] is too clever for his own good and has no idea to connect with blue collar workers.” How the blue collar deficit will be removed by replacing one Old Etonian with another remains unclear, but its a question an increasingly chippy set of Tory backbenchers will be asking.

 

And what does it mean in policy terms? Well, unlike his brother, Jo-Jo is ultra-loyal, so this is hardly a sop to the awkward squad. Perhaps it best reflects the disquiet which has grown in the Tory ranks over the Leveson deal which Mr Letwin masterminded, although given Dave’s willingness to press ahead with a Royal Charter, there obviously not a great deal of doubt in the leadership’s mind. More likely, it’s simply in keeping with the spirit of the times. The Tory backroom team features a lot of new faces as the build-up to 2015 kicks in. As the Times (£) reports, Chris Lockwood, an Economist journalist and another mate of Dave’s, is another new arrival, having been handed a policy unit job. It’s hardly a move which will appease backbenchers, as Dr Sarah Wollaston tells the paper “in any other walk of life, there would be interviews to find the best person for the job.”

 

BLUE MOVIE BLUES FOR PRISONERS

 

Prison privileges will be earned, not granted as a right, in future. Chris Grayling’s reforms mean that, as we report, all prisoners will be forced to wear uniforms initially and will also be banned from having television in their cells. Aside from restricted access to cash, inmates will also lose access to subscription television channels and 18 certificate movies and DVDs. Gym time, apparently a highly valued privilege, will be dependent on good behaviour. It’s a heavy nudge, but its the return of nudge policy making, even so.

 

TWEETS AND TWITS

 

Newsnight is no longer the bee’s knees for Michael Dugher:

 

@MichaelDugherMP: Newsnight: ‘The honey bee has been brought to it’s knees’. Time for bed.

TOP COMMENT

In the Telegraph

 

Benedict Brogan – A wary, weary West is leaving Syria in the butchers’ hands

 

Philip Johnston – France shows us how to deal with jihadis

 

Peter Lilley – Green spin has skewered the fracking debate

 

Tom Chivers – Beyond the Fringe

 

Telegraph View – It is all too easy to say ‘no’ to Mr Miliband

 

Best of the rest

 

Rachel Sylvester in the Times (£) – Some missionary zeal at last, thanks to IDS

 

Donald Macintyre in The Independent – The politics of protest can olly take you so far

 

Polly Toynbee in The Guardian – Labour’s golden policy key? Build, build and build more

 

Janan Ganesh in the FT (£) – Economic growth will not decide the next election

 

THE AGENDA

 

09:30 am: Bank of England releases its Money and Credit report for March. Bank of England 020 7601 4411.

 

09:30 am: Cabinet. 10 Downing Street.

 

12:45 pm: Culture secretary Maria Miller releases plans to grow tourism to the UK. The plans aim to boost visitor numbers to 40 million by 2020, creating 200,00 jobs and generating an extra £13 billion. One Great George Street.

 

CRIME PAYS AFTER ALL: Lloyds posts £2bn profit by losing less and stealing more.

The Slog

It’ll take 65 more years like this one to get our money back

Everyone seems jolly happy with the Lloyds Banking Group results: profits are up almost tenfold to around £2 billion before tax, embezzlement, dodgy accountancy, brave faces and brass necks are taken into account. Appallingly idiotic investment bets halved to a mere billion quid – and there was a satisfying absence of any fresh charges related to the mis-selling of payment protection insurance. That scandal  will very likely cost LBG £6.8bn by the time they’ve finished.

However, dig beneath the headlines and the whole thing looks less fragrant:

1. The management declined to give any firm guidance on when dividends might recommence.

2. They also declined to comment on when the UK government might start selling its 39% stake in the group.

3. 35% of all profit came from selling government bonds, which is sort of more of…

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Israel and Palestinians closing in on resumed peace talks

srael and the Palestinians seemed closer Tuesday night than they have been for more than two years to a resumption of substantive peace negotiations, after both sides indicated satisfaction with an apparently American-brokered amendment to the Arab League peace initiative.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has spent recent weeks shuttling around the Middle East as well as meeting relevant players in Washington, also sounded fairly upbeat in comments Tuesday. He said there were still hurdles to clear, but “I don’t think you can underestimate… the significance of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, [United] Arab Emirates, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and others coming to the table and saying, ‘We are prepared to make peace now in 2013.’”

More….