MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph).
Good morning. Westminster awakes to the news of a Johnson in Downing Street, at last. There are plenty of gags around, and quite a bit of excitement, on the back of Dave’s internal re-engineering of the No 10 policy machine. The appointment of Jo Johnson to run the policy unit, and alongside him a policy board of interesting MPs (including Peter Lilley), tells us that the parliamentary party is winning its long-running campaign to get Dave to pay more attention to what his backbenchers want. “The appointment of the Orpington MP is one of a series of moves designed to build bridges with the Prime Minister’s backbench critics and to capitalise on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher,” reports the Times.
As a measure of where power lies, it could be said to tilt it further towards the ’22 membership. But as one MP texted me last night, “when will Dave realise it’s leadership we want, not go-betweens?!” You can see the point: put the Jo J appointment alongside John Hayes as “senior” parliamentary adviser, and even the purpose-built Cabinet table extension Sue Cameron mentions, and there’s a lot of tinkering going on that gives No 10 an increasingly patchwork air. Or does if you are among those who view the shake-up with scepticism: another Old Etonian Bullingdon Oxford graduate, and – really dubious, this – a former journalist to boot.
Once we’ve finished with the gags about a Johnson in No 10, there’s also the Boris thing. It’s tempting to wonder if putting the MP for Orpington in a central role in the machine isn’t a deliberate tweak of the Mayor’s tail. Those Johnsons are very competitive, they say. It will be worth finding out if Johnson J will be put in charge of the manifesto, a critical position for the 2015 election. And where will he fit alongside Lynton Crosby, who has the PM’s undivided attention, and is now working nearly full time to streamline what Dave does down to a few core issues?
At the mid-way point of the Parliament, the policy-making focus shifts naturally back towards party HQ and preparations for the election and a second term. In No 10 the focus should be on implementing existing ideas, not necessarily cooking up new ones. Jo J has impressed his colleagues by being thoughtful, bright, smart. He’s one of a handful tipped for great things by other peers, and some talk of him as a better leadership bet than his brother. His friends are working on improving his people skills. The question for Dave, though, is one of practical politics: he may be good, but he’s new and untested. He’s investing a lot of hope and responsibility in Johnson J, for an uncertain return. Given the need to improve the No 10 operation, and give it some edge, it’s worth a try.
The countdown has begun. At 9.30am the ONS will publish GDP figures for the first quarter of this year. If they are negative, George is in serious trouble. “A triple-dip recession,” the PA reports, “would take the UK into uncharted economic waters not even encountered during the dark days of the 1970s.”
Understandably, the Chancellor and the Treasury are “desperate to announce measures to restart growth,” reports the FT (£). But George is struggling to find a game changer: an extension of the Funding for Lending scheme is the latest flop.
“…if Mr Osborne thought the nation’s experts on credit supply, lending and the economy would be grateful, he had another thing coming. In a display of rare unanimity, economists and Bank of England insiders thought the scheme was welcome, but would have only a marginal effect.”
Good thing that the Chancellor is as tough as old boots. His biographer Janan Ganesh writes in the FT: “It is hard to think of a politician more indifferent to hostility – which is just as well, for surveys find him to be the least popular in the UK. If a man is already seen as rich and cocky, and then let it be known that he supports Chelsea football club, he cannot be fussy about his own public image.”
But what can be done to encourage growth? Well, David Cameron’s official spokesman, we report, says it would help if stay-at-home mothers returned to work. It’s “good for the economy” that the Coalition is helping parents to pay high nursery fees, apparently. The campaign group, Mothers at Home Matter, says the Government is “obsessed” with GDP at the expense of family life. In an hour, we’ll be reminded why.
Millions of NHS patients are being forced to attend hospital A & E departments because their GPs won’t treat them outside normal working hours. In a speech this afternoon, Jeremy Hunt will say this cushy set-up for GPs is “disastrous” – and that it’s the “biggest operational challenge” facing the NHS. Our splash has the details:
The NHS is conducting a review of out-of-hours care which may lead to GPs again taking responsibility for looking after patients outside normal working hours.
Controversial changes to GPs’ contracts made under Labour in 2004 allowed them to opt out of treating patients outside normal office hours. The review could see that policy reversed.
The Health Secretary says there has been a “fundamental failure” by the NHS to care for elderly patients with long-term health conditions.
MEET MRS MILIBAND
Ed Miliband has “reached for the emergency card,” says Quentin Letts in the Mail – namely, his wife Justine, on a media-friendly visit to her old school. Quentin is impressed: “Think Cherie Blair with turbo boosters (but better ankles).” But does she risk upstaging the Labour leader? We report that she was a bit cooler than Ed at school: “During the school visit Mr Miliband was told that his wife had once jumped out of a window in order to avoid a teacher spotting her with lipstick. She also received a number of detentions for wearing a purple coat instead of the regulation black one.” Wild thing!
Start taking Nigel Farage seriously or you’re finished. That’s the message from Plymouth University election experts, reported in the Times (£). They say Ukip is the “most serious fourth party incursion in English politics” since the Second World War and that it could take 6 per cent of the Tory vote in 2015. In the short-term, the anti-EU party “could double its councillors in the county council elections on May 2 and scupper Tory chances in hundreds of other seats”. Peter Oborne is enjoying this “marvellous chaos”: Ukip, he says, has “become a symbol of national protest against the political class and its now bankrupt methodologies of triangulation, voter targeting, focus groups, eye-catching initiatives and advertising gimmicks”.
QATADA GOES NUCLEAR
Kaboom Qatada is the Sun’s splash today. Dave is “drawing up explosive plans to ram a new law through Parliament to kick out” the radical cleric, the paper reports. But this nuclear option could “spark a huge row with Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem MPs — and may even run the risk of bringing down the Coalition”. Meanwhile, in the Commons yesterday, Theresa May told a joke. Michael Deacon sketches the momentous occasion:
Mark Reckless, Tory MP for Rochester & Strood, had been huffing and puffing about the gross injustices of the European court in Strasbourg, whose mania for human rights had foiled the Government in its efforts to deport Qatada. We couldn’t let them “move the goalposts”, he growled. The last word must go to our own Supreme Court.
Mrs May rose. She had to operate within the law, she told Mr Reckless, effortlessly teeing up her punchline. Because to break the law would be – “dare I say it” – a “reckless” move!
Reckless! Like his name! Mark Reckless!
LABOUR CIVIL WAR
Red Ed suffered a fit of rage yesterday, after Len McCluskey said he was being “seduced” by the Blairites in his shadow cabinet. Unite’s general secretary told the New Statesman: “If [Ed Miliband] gets seduced by the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders, then the truth is that he’ll be defeated and he’ll be cast into the dustbin of history.” As the Guardian reports, Ed has given him both barrels in return: “This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible. It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s. It won’t work. It is wrong. It is disloyal to the party he claims to represent.” Ouch.
CABINET TABLE AMENDMENT
Superb detail from Sue Cameron’s column. The Cabinet room is so crowded on Tuesday mornings that No 10 is having to upscale the furniture. She’s not kidding.
With 32 crowding into Cabinet, it was so hard for everyone to find a perch that some ministers had to squeeze up on the clerks’ table at the end. Now a 4ft-long section has been made to fit perfectly on to the coffin-shaped Cabinet table, originally commissioned by Harold Macmillan more than half a century ago.
TWEETS AND TWITS
A superb #accidentalpartridge from Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds:
@jreynoldsMP: “There is only one thing that will improve the day I’ve had… #classic“
In the Telegraph
Peter Oborne: Ukip has thrown British politics into marvellous chaos
Nicholas Hytner: Art subsidies and War Horse
Sue Cameron: Let’s make more leg room at the Cabinet table
Allison Pearson: Nurses shouldn’t carry the bedpan for the NHS
Telegraph View: The Abu Qatada farce is scripted by our judges
Telegraph View: Labour’s welfare legacy
Best of the rest
Janan Ganesh in the FT (£): Myths surround the austerity chancellor
Chris Giles in the FT (£): A more nominal view of the UK economy
Steve Richards in the Times (£): Reheating Thatcherism won’t save Cameron
Samantha Callan in the Times (£): Strong families should lead the war on poverty
Martin Kettle in the Guardian: Salmond is giving unionism a shot in the arm
Luke Johnson in the Mail: Google is a gigantic parasite
09.00 Nick Clegg’s phone-in on LBC 97.3.
09.30 **Q1 GDP figures published by the ONS.** Convocation Hall, Church House.
1030 Tony Hall, the BBC’s DG, and Beeb chairman Lord Patten appear before the culture, media and sport select committee.
13.30 Eugene Kaspersky, CEO of Kaspersky Lab, gives cyber crime speech, The Connaught.
15.30 Jeremy Hunt speech on long-term health conditions. Church House Conference Centre, Westminster.