MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).
Good morning. David Cameron has made his play to head off trouble tomorrow. He has offered to legislate for a referendum before 2015, raising the prospect of a Coalition-testing parliamentary vote. Westminster is running with rumours that various big beasts are ready to step forward tomorrow night with their verdict on the result of the locals and what it means for the Conservatives. Mr Cameron’s show of ankle yesterday must be seen in that context: by accepting demands from the Tory right for paving legislation in this Parliament, he hopes to counter any stirrings of trouble that might follow Ukip’s surge.
The argument in favour of forcing a vote is that it will allow the Tories to put themselves on the right side of a popular issue, leaving the Lib Dems stranded on the wrong one. Tories can’t wait to hear Nick Clegg explain in 2015 why he voted against a referendum Bill. However, Dave’s move is intended to flush out Labour. Some in the Shadow Cabinet had been urging Ed Miliband to pre-empt Mr Cameron by calling a vote themselves. The Labour leader must now decide where he stands on a referendum, a tricky one internally. Or does he? The thing to consider when studying what Mr Cameron said yesterday is the absence of a firm commitment: will he legislate for an in-out referendum in this Parliament or not? If all he says is that all options are on the table, or words to that effect, it’s a pledge that’s of no more use than his offer to withdraw temporarily form the ECHR. Having stuck his toe in the water, Mr Cameron may find that he now has no choice but to leap in. Something tells me this is one issue where the PM is going to have to make sure his rhetoric matches reality.
As far as the local elections go, the offer has come too late to make a meaningful impact. In any case, the Ukip showing ahead of the local polls demonstrates that their voter base is concerned with issues beyond Brussels. The Tory party in exile? Peter Oborne makes the case in this morning’s Telegraph that Tory voters are wrong to stray:
“This brings us back to Lord Tebbit’s remarks. They might indeed make sense if the Conservative Party had departed from its traditional agenda. But it is hard to think of a more typical Tory prime minister than David Cameron. He stands full in the tradition of Disraeli, Baldwin and Macmillan. He has some clear ideas about what he wants to do, but is cautious and uses craft. Like them, he makes mistakes; like them, he is constantly accused of betrayal. But Mr Cameron (like Baldwin) faces the problem that he is the leader of a coalition government during a time of dire economic crisis. It is essential for the national interest that the Coalition survives, yet Mr Cameron must constantly enter into one undignified contrivance after another to make sure it does so.”
But sadly for Dave, all Fleet Street doesn’t think this way. Significantly, the Tories have lost the Sun. For the first time in its 44 years, “the Sun is not going to tell you how to vote”, its leader proclaims. Appropriately for an election characterised by voter hostility to the established parties, the paper adds that “Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and yes, even Ukip, have all proved beyond your trust.” It’s a damning argument, and a cynical one, but not even the most true blue of Tory supporters could argue that it doesn’t capture a large part of the public mood.
BANK LOSSES A WINNER FOR OSBORNE
The Treasury has given up hope of selling the state’s shares in Lloyds and RBS at anything other than a whopping loss, the FT (£) reports. Instead, George’s emphasis will be on Alistair Darling over-paying for the controlling interest in both and saddling the taxpayer with the associated debt. The idea is to smooth the path for privatisation before 2015, but when the paper losses are realised, they will be enormous. Currently the combined shortfall on the 82pc holding in RBS and the 39pc holding in Lloyds amounts to £24bn. Sell in haste, repent at leisure? The timing can be criticised, but the politics is clever. Divesting before the 2015 election would improve that year’s deficit figures significantly, and the emphasis on Mr Darling paying over the odds would give an opportunity for George to riff on Labour’s fiscal irresponsibility. Add to that the possibility of a Tell Sid style public offer, and the temptations are obvious.
Less helpful for George is the intransigence of his colleagues when it comes to departmental cuts. As the Mail reports, most secretaries of state have flatly refused to provide savings totalling 10pc in their spending review submissions. What’s more, at least five have discovered claims on the aid budget. Defence, the Foreign Office, Education, BIS and DEFRA are all pitching for funds to cover everything from body armour to malaria jabs. As Stephen Glover points out, that’s not necessarily bad for party harmony, though. With Dave intransigent on the aid ringfence, backbenchers might be more prepared to accept DfID’s budget if they thought the cash wasn’t going on, well, aid.
The all-singing, all-dancing new policy advisory board announced last week made headlines, but will the seven backbenchers make policy? Sue Cameron writes for us this morning on the constitutional detail and it looks another case of act first and let the details take care of themselves. While the plan at present is to have the advisers monitoring two or three departments, there’s no word on whether they will be given access to official papers. There’s also no guarantee that ministers will accord a great deal of weight to their deliberations:
“A Cabinet minister with any balls (why does Home Secretary Theresa May spring to mind?) will not put up with mere backbenchers trampling over their policy turf. Nor will top civil servants. As one insider told me: ‘All over Whitehall, permanent secretaries will be saying to their ministers: “What do you want us to do about these backbench policy wonks, Secretary of State? We could shut them out or, better still, we could swamp them. You know, invite them to a few meetings and deluge them with background papers.”‘
Intriguingly, Sue adds that there are rumblings from the ’22 about the “murky” new arrangements. In particular, they are worried that, if collective responsibility applies, its members would not be able to hold executive positions on the Committee (as currently is the case with George Eustice).
PUSHING ON WITH PRESS REFORM
Dave will ignore the wishes of a number of his own MPs, including John Whittingdale the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and reject the newspaper industry’s suggestions on press regulation out of hand, the Independent reports. Number 10 does not want to “reopen the issue” and fears any compromise with the industry will lose it the public moral high ground. On a more practical note, it would also run the risk of defeat in the Commons given that the political wing of Hacked Off Labour is set against any perceived dilution, as are the Lib Dems.
SAM CAM DIGS FOR VICTORY
The Chancellor’s bid to build Britain’s way out of recession has gotten off to a slow start, thanks largely to the intransigence of Tory councils when it comes to planning. Fortunately, Sam Cam is riding to the rescue. As we report, the Prime Minister’s wife is a shareholder in her father’s company which is seeking to build 1,500 houses on greenfield land in Lincolnshire. Downing Street argues that Mrs Cameron’s 3pc holding in Normanby Estate Holdings, which in turn owns half of developer Firecrest Land, is not a “relevant interest” in the view of the Cabinet Secretary.
CABLE-ING ALL STAY AT HOME MOTHERS
Almost a week has passed without Vince Cable attacking one of the Coalition’s policies, so it was a relief to hear him proclaim yesterday that he did not share their “prejudice against stay at home mums”. Conceding that the tax system penalised those electing to remain at home by failing to allow the transference of the personal allowance between partners, the Business Secretary offered this succour to frustrated parents: “I don’t think there is an easy solution, or we would have found it.”
THE PRIMARK (DEPUTY) PRIME MINISTER
He may shop without a “moral calculator”, but Nick’s in the market for a financial bargain when he goes shopping with his children, he told Call Clegg listeners yesterday. The Mail is clearly unconvinced by the DPM’s claim to shop in “K-mart”, asking “well, have you ever seen the Cleggs in Primark?” The answer to that is no, but I wonder if you can get one of these there?
DIGITAL DAWN STILL DEPENDS ON DAVE
In the company of the trendier sort of Tory backbencher, you often hear the view that the internet can deliver the 2015 election if only the party would campaign online in the fashion of America’s Democrats. One problem with that, as Barack Obama’s technology chief Harper Read tells Matt Warman: it’s the candidate not the technology who wins the election. “My role was not as important the media wanted it to be. We won because we had the better candidate. If we had won by one or two votes I would say look at the technology,” he says.
DAVE PLAYS DIRTY
His Flashman tendency was under wraps yesterday as he studiously avoided being rude to Ukip, but Dave is far ruder than Gordon Brown ever was, according to the University of Manchester. As we report, at least half of those questioning Dave in neutral terms were met with “calm down, dear” or another scything prime ministerial witticism. What happened to the end of Punch and Judy politics?
TWEETS AND TWITS
Toby Perkins is up with the birds, and the Morning Briefing:
@tobyperkinsmp: “4am: election day Time to get up and start delivering“
In the Telegraph
Peter Oborne – If you’re voting today, learn the lesson of history and back a Tory
Sue Cameron – Which side is Cameron’s new team on?
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard – Debt-crippled Holland is paying the price for EMU blunders
Telegraph View – Nudging government in the right direction
Best of the rest
Martin Kettle in The Guardian – Like the unions, the press has shown us who governs
Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail – Dave won’t back down on aid. But wily ministers are finding ways to get him out of the mire
Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun – My election prediction
Ruth Lea in The Times (£) – No sign of light in the long eurozone tunnel
Today: Elections across English regions. Polls take place for 27 top-tier counties which share power with districts, six former shire councils – Cornwall, Durham, Isle of Wight, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire – which are now unitary authorities and Bristol. There is also a Parliamentary by-election in South Shields and an election on Anglesey. By-election in South Shields to replace former Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
10:30 am: Boris Johnson celebrates Gu Puds 10th anniversary. The Mayor will make a chocolate souffle. The Gu development kitchen, Noble Foods, Unit 4, Forest Works Industrial Estate, Forest Road.
07:00 pm: The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and XLP conference on how educational failure drives poverty and wider social problems. XLP, All Hallows-on-the-Wall, 83 London Wall.