Friday 17 December 2010

Treasury officials' bonuses

There we were, wondering whether the Treasury would introduce restrictions on bankers’ bonuses, when all along they were tucking something away for themselves.

Figures from the Treasury show that 736 bonuses of some sort were awarded in 2006/07 – totalling £1.1m.

Amounts then rose to 2008/09 – the year in which the recession kicked in – when 990 bonuses totalling almost £1.4m were handed out.

In 2009/10, a higher number of bonuses, 1,273, were awarded albeit with a lower overall total of around £1.3m.

In total over the four year period up to 2009/10, over £5m was handed to Treasury officials.

You might think that when the overall annual cash figures are divided among the number of bonuses given out, that each bonus doesn’t seem that big.

Take 2008/09 for example… £1.4m / 990 bonuses = £1,414 per bonus.

But the truth is that bonuses varied in size and the top bonuses in each year ranged between £15,000 and £22,000 – not far off the average basic annual salary in the UK.

The amounts are not like the sky-high bonuses bankers get, but some of these officials may well bear responsibility for the regulatory system which contributed to the banking collapse.

Interesting to see whether Osborne has taken out his axe over the issue by the time the 2010/11 figures come out.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Losing a grip on prisoner voting...

Lobbydog was chatting to a member of the previous administration earlier about Government measures which will allow some UK prisoners to vote.

The Coalition says the measures must be taken because of a ruling by the European Court that denying all prisoners the vote is unlawful.

Any time a Labour MP attacks the Government in the House on the issue, the minister hits back saying that a Labour Government would also have had to follow the court’s ruling.

The previous government did nothing to resolve the issue whereas the Coalition, goes the Government line, is now taking the hard decisions Labour could not.

I asked the former minister whether it wasn’t a bit rich of them to attack the Coalition when all Labour had done was to hold two consultations on the issue without ever getting to grips with it.

“Of course we never got to grips with it,” said the former minister.

“That was the whole point. We couldn’t go against the court, but giving prisoners the vote was wrong. So our view was that we should just kick it in to the long grass.

“Then, when we got to it again we took the view that we should kick it into the long grass again and we would have kept doing so.”

I get the feeling that there are probably quite a few Tories who would support such a strategy.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Watch Ed Balls work his magic on Lorely Burt

Cut to foreign convicts scheme...

It feels like Immigration Minister Damian Green has surreptitiously announced a cut to a Home Office scheme which saw the Government paying foreign convicts to return to their own countries today.

Before October 1 the Home Office would pay £5,000 to foreign lags who still had time left on their sentences, and £3,000 to those who had finished their jail term, to go back to their home country.

The initiative, called the Facilitated Return Scheme (FRS), cost the Government some £4.8m in 2009/10, but had been hailed by the previous and current administrations as a “practical solution” to getting rid of foreign convicts.

But, tucked away at the bottom of an answer to a written question, Green said today:

“In order to make the scheme more affordable and bring it in line with other assisted voluntary, return programmes, it has been necessary to reduce the amount of assistance given to those who leave the country under FRS. As of 1 October 2010, those who apply for and are accepted onto the scheme will receive a reduced cash payment amount. We anticipate that high numbers of individuals will continue to take up the scheme and we will monitor the level of applications over the coming months.”

Lobbydog put in a call to the Home Office who said the amounts now paid out would be reduced to £1,500 and £750 respectively.

That’s a meaty 70% reduction for the upper tier amount and an even bigger 75% reduction for the lower tier amount.

You might think it’s a good thing we're not giving so much taxpayers’ cash to convicts.

The question is, will it mean more foreign convicts deciding to stay in the UK? The £750 might hardly cover the plane fare home.

MP's sneaky bid to split student vote

One MP it seems is not prepared to take the student offensive sitting down.

David Morris has tabled an EDM raising concern over the fact that students can register to vote either at their "permanent" address (usually their parents' place) or at their term time address.

Morris says the “unfair” result is that "transient" student populations in university areas might end up out-voting the settled population when it comes to election time.

The problem could be solved by laying regulation that limited students to registering at their permanent address only, says Morris.

Of course, this would also mean strong student voting blocks ceasing to exist in university constituencies in the way they currently do - stripping them collectively of the power to have a significant impact in specific seats.

It's a rather cheeky version of the old divide and rule.

But students need not worry just yet. Morris is the only person to have signed the motion so far.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Pickles delayed by Whitehall bickering

As part of the Localism Bill published yesterday, the Government said it would steer the country’s 12 biggest cities towards having all-powerful executive mayors.

We had previously been told that the powers conferred to the new mayors would be defined when the Bill was published – and that they would be more influential than council leaders and mayors as defined under previous legislation.

But yesterday ministers failed to define exactly what powers they would have – instead saying things would become clear as the Localism Bill moved through Parliament.

The reason for this, I’m told by a source, is that when the draft Bill was sent round other Whitehall departments some objected to the level of influence being handed to the new mayors.

In particular they objected to powers which gave the mayors control of an area of policy, health for example, which came under their jurisdiction.

Bickering over just what powers the mayors should get was delaying the already delayed Bill and so Eric Pickles kicked the issue into the long grass to get the legislation published before Christmas.

No doubt it’ll come back to haunt him in the New Year.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Tory pledges to pay penance for tuition fees vote

Tory Stafford MP Jeremy Lefroy told Lobbydog that after voting for the tuition fees rise tonight, he would ‘repay’ money for his degree, which he received from Cambridge University decades ago.

He told me: “I got my degree for nothing, but because I voted in favour of this rise I’m going to pay for it now.

“My degree was from King’s College Cambridge and when they bring out their fee structure I’ll work out what my degree would cost now.”

With his current wage and under the regulations set out in the new fees system, Mr Lefroy believes he will be paying back around £330 a month, though for how long depends on the overall cost of the degree.

He added: “I will pay the money to my local university in Staffordshire because I think that Cambridge probably has enough as it is.

“I thought long and hard about it and believe it’s the right thing to do if you were prepared to vote for this measure and you were given a free education, which I was – and I would urge other people to give to their universities too.

“In America one in ten people give to their universities, but in Britain the figure is only one in one hundred.”

Wednesday 8 December 2010

How Speaker Bercow cost Nick Clegg two hours of pain

The bust up between Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin and John Bercow on Monday night (video below courtesy of The Telegraph) was all about the Government’s attempt to limit tomorrow’s debate on tuition fees to three hours.

The Government had put down a motion to achieve that end and Labour MPs wanting to object to it shouted “object” at the wrong time – a few seconds early.

If Bercow hadn’t encouraged then moments later to shout “object” again, the motion would have passed and the debate been limited.

Interestingly, last night the ‘three hour limit’ motion was on the order paper again but, when given the opportunity, the Government whip declined to move it.

Today we find another motion is down to be moved at about 7pm. But this time the motion limits the tuition fees debate to five hours.

That suggests that after the Mcloughlin/Bercow incident negotiations may have taken place and the Government been forced to concede a further two hours on the debate – two extra hours of excruciating discussion for Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem MPs.

Chatting earlier, a Labour MP argued that instead of sticking to rigid rules Bercow used his ‘common sense’ to interpret them – he knew Labour wanted to object, everyone else knew Labour wanted to object, they had signalled their objection and therefore Bercow took the objection.

But then again you might argue that as a direct result of Bercow’s intervention the Government has been put at disadvantage. As one colleague put it: “The Labour objection was outside the rules. If you are not going to obey the rules, why bother having them?”

Tory committee chair critical of spin on NHS plans

Tory MP Stephen Dorrell, who chairs the Health Select Committee, has said the Government got it wrong in the way it presented key reforms of the NHS.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley claimed his White Paper – which included plans to abolish Primary Care Trusts and replace them with GP consortia – was a “radical shake up” of the NHS when it was published in the summer.

But Dorrell told Lobbydog the reforms were actually a continuation of measures put in place by the previous Government.

“It’s notable that when the process started this was presented as the most radical shake up of the health services since 1948,” said Dorrell, a former Health Secretary.

“They have started to change that now saying that it is more about evolution than revolution. That’s because it is not so much about new ideas as it is about new urgency to implement them.”

Mr Dorrell continued: “The last Government was in favour of a lot of things that Andrew Lansley is in favour of. The last Government was in favour of removing bureaucracy and so is Andrew Lansley.

“What’s happened is that now there is a greater emphasis on continuity and less on the idea that policy is going off in a different direction, because it isn’t doing that.”

The comments will be seen as a slight to Lansley. Particularly as it emerged last week that a ‘high level review board’ consisting of other senior members of the Coalition had been set up to keep an eye on the direction of health policy.

Mr Dorrell repeated recent comments that the NHS needed to prioritise attempts to deliver savings of £20bn.

The White Paper should be seen as a means to deliver the savings, he argued, but that would only be possible if more efforts were made by ministers to engage with NHS professionals and communities.

He said: “The White Paper didn’t seem to make engaging with people a top priority. The first priority was to make it look like a new world coming in 2014, but the real priority was to engage with people in 2011.”

Ed's comeback...

After last week’s PMQs debacle Ed Miliband showed grit to put in a good performance this week.

He even felt confident enough to turn one of Cameron’s taunts from last week – “not waving, but drowning” – back on the PM, though it wasn’t even his best line.

PMQs is normally not about scrutiny, which can’t be done properly when hundreds of people are screaming in your face. It’s more about embarrassing your opponent and lifting your troops.

On the second count Miliband got top marks, Labour MPs were buoyant. Even some of the front benchers who in the past haven’t played along with Miliband’s lines of attack by shouting at the right times, were letting themselves be led.

On the first count he did well too, but in part because the tuition fees policy, which he correctly pointed out was “in chaos”, offers an easy opportunity to divide the Coalition.

To make today’s performance develop into a run, he will eventually need to show he can carry out a solid assault on Coalition economic policy.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Mr Speaker's Hot Air: No.2

The next instalment of our regular feature. A response from Speaker Bercow, who often complains that members speak too long, to Chris Bryant MP.

What he said….

Mr Speaker: Well, I think that someone once said of the honourable Gentleman that his mind climbs mountains without any molehills. He is always thinking ahead of himself and I am not surprised, as he has a great elasticity of mind, but he is seeking to draw me into matters beyond where we have reached and he is absolutely right in his initial supposition that we do not discuss security matters on the floor of the House. He has registered his concern that the Home Secretary should be ready to make a statement if the eventuality he fears could happen, but should not, actually happen. I have a strong feeling that her office reads Hansard. I think that will probably do for today.

What he could have said…

Mr Speaker: We do not discuss security matters on the floor of the House. The member has registered his concerns.

Monday 6 December 2010

Ken Clarke's conundrum

Tomorrow Justice Secretary Ken Clarke will publish his Green Paper, the one which has caused all the fuss about shorter prison sentences.

Clarke’s message up to now has been;

a) that short prison sentences don’t stop re-offending,
b) that keeping people in prisons ‘unnecessarily’ is too costly for the taxpayer and
c) that given the parlous state of the public finances we need to do things that cost less.

Clarke has indicated that a way round the problem is to give beefed-up community sentences, instead of costly incarceration, to criminals committing lesser offences.

The idea works in the political sense because those on the Labour side identify with the idea that community sentences are more rehabilitative – Ed Miliband suggested he supported Clarke’s reforms during his speech at conference.

Meanwhile many Tories are prepared to suppress their instinct to rubbish the claim that Clarke’s ideas will reduce offending, as they accept the need to cut spending quickly and deeply.

But Clarke’s idea only continues to work politically as long as it continues to tread that path, and one senior member of the Coalition told me that the Ministry of Justice had faced some difficult challenges with it.

The crux of the problem was apparently that the kind of ‘beefed up’ community sentences that would be needed to make the idea viable for many Tory MPs, may end up being very expensive too.

“The question they’re asking is how do you make community sentences tougher and the answer is you need constant supervision – you need to get people out of bed, you need to get them to the workshop, you need to get them to the drug rehabilitation place, you need to watch and monitor them constantly," said my source.

“That is very expensive, particularly as these people live very chaotic lives. It may not be cheaper to do it that way and that is something they will have to justify.”

If it turns out that community sentences do not make significant enough savings, then those Tories sitting on their hands may begin to ask why they should support something that feels soft on crime, when it isn’t even cutting spending that much.

Friday 3 December 2010

See you in court….

Bad news for the Government. Nottingham City Council has been given permission to go to a full court hearing in their bid to overturn a Coalition decision to cancel school funding.

Nottingham had been promised millions under the Building Schools for the Future programme to upgrade its secondary schools.

But earlier this year Education Secretary Michael Gove withdrew the funding, despite the council have already spend a lot of money on the preparatory planning.

Unwilling to accept the decision Nottingham sought judicial review and has now been given permission by the courts to take the case forward.

The date of the full hearing is to be decided at a case management session on Monday.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Right wing buffers

Lobbydog hears that a group of the new Tory intake have been selected as right-wing ‘buffers’.

They’ve been sanctioned by the Tory leadership to discuss certain issues in the media which have been deemed too politically sensitive for the leadership to talk openly about.

Their purpose is to make sure right-wing party members and associations see that their issues are not being ignored in Westminster.

But obviously it also offers the opportunity for the leadership to co-opt a potentially troublesome element of the parliamentary party.

Cameron will have been well aware that MPs on the Government benches are more rebellious than any group of MPs have been in decades.

Of course, by grouping these people together you give them a collective identity which may turn out to be dangerous if they choose to speak with a single voice against the leadership.

The new age of expenses transparency

Predictably the IPSA ‘expenses search’ website has crashed, it seemed to go down less than 15mins after the new set of MPs’ claims went on line

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Miliband misses another chance...

In the press gallery there was a feeling of slight embarrassment for Ed Miliband after his PMQs performance today – similar to when you watch a goalie throw the ball into his own net by mistake.

It was generally agreed, even by the likes of The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire it seems, that he had been out manoeuvred and defeated by a sharper Cameron.

A more rightish colleague suggested the performance would precipitate a full on leadership crisis.

I wasn't so sure at first and was prepared to think that while he may have flopped, at least he was attempting to reshape the debate on who is to blame for the recession and slow recovery.

That itself seemed to be more than we have seen from the Labour leader so far.

But having spoken to one or two Labour MPs, there seems to be an acute sense of disappointment – this, they said, was an important chance to hit the Coalition on the economy and it was badly missed.

I still think it’s too early to think of a full on leadership crisis, Labour MPs tend to be more forgiving of their leaders than Tories, but Miliband will only be given so much time.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

A New Blog Feature: Mr Speaker’s Hot Air, No. 1

This was the response of Speaker Bercow (who often chides MPs for talking too long) to a point of order raised by Keith Vaz MP yesterday. It regarded an incident in which technicians mistakenly broadcasted a private session of Vaz’s Home Affairs Select Committee.

What he said…

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving me advance notice of it. I understand from the advance notification and from what he has just said that there was a technical problem with the recording of his Committee's meeting last week. There is not really a procedural solution that I can offer him or the House, but I am advised that all necessary steps are being taken to avoid a recurrence. If no harm was done, I am sure that the Committee and its illustrious Chairman will be relieved. In essence, he asked me a hypothetical question-whether it would have been a contempt, and so on and so forth. I think that he is capable of working out such matters for himself. On this occasion, I hope that he will understand it if I adopt the approach of the late Lord Whitelaw, which was that on the whole, judging from experience, he preferred to cross a bridge only when he came to it.

What he could have said….

Mr Speaker: Right now there is no procedural solution to the problem that exists. We’re finding out what went wrong and making sure it doesn’t happen again. If the media were ever to try and broadcast a private committee session to the public, we will deal with the problem at that point.

Labour squeaks on tuition fees...

Students should take note of the nuance in the motion Labour has tabled on tuition fees for the Opposition Day Debate today.

Far from showing the kind of brick-wall resistance to Government proposals student leaders want, Miliband’s mealy worded motion indicates nervousness over the issue.

It doesn’t call for tuition fees to be scrapped or lowered, but calls for the Government to “publish a White Paper…before asking the House to vote”.

It makes no mention of students from poor backgrounds being able to afford university, but instead “is concerned that major questions about how the Government’s market in higher education is intended to work remain unanswered”. Powerful stuff.

Compare that to the far more stirring motion tabled by Plaid’s Jonathan Edwards, supported by the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, which talks about education “being a right, not a privilege” and you see just how carefully Miliband is stepping on tuition fees.

Firstly this highlights the problem that students face on this issue – they don’t, and have not had for a long time, any solid support from any major political party over fees.

Labour instigated the Browne Review and even the Lib Dems had resigned themselves to reversing their pledge on fees because it’s simply unaffordable.

If students want to make any headway they need to address affordability, not simply complain about who has ‘betrayed’ them politically.

But Labour’s motion also reflects the difficulty the shadow cabinet is having on agreeing its approach to tuition fees. Until they do the Coalition will continue to get an easier ride than it should on the issue.

Flattery will get you...

You might think one of the only politicians to be singled out in the WikiLeaks papers yesterday would be perturbed, but not Alan Duncan.

Dunky, Minister for International Development, was thrilled by the fact that our friends across the water had shown such an interest.

He was out of the country on official business yesterday, but a close friend of his told Lobbydog: “Alan thought it was all rather flattering. All this shows is that Washington thought he knew a lot about the Middle East and that he knows a lot about Government.

“It also indicates that the Americans were pretty sure that the Tories were going to win the election back in January. Alan thinks the resurrection of the William Hague stuff is nonsense.”

The “Hague stuff” alludes to the fact that the Americans seemed to show a particular interest in Duncan’s relationship with the then shadow foreign secretary – with whom he had once shared a flat.

All rather trivial really, but interesting to know the kind of information the Americans like to be armed with when they go into negotiations.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Chris Bryant takes a sauna with Lobbydog...

Lobbydog has been in Parliament long enough to know that it has a knack for the unexpected.

None the less, I admit being caught off guard when the gods of Westminster saw fit to end my day last night by dressing me in nothing more than a towel and putting me in an overly-heated sauna with Chris Bryant MP.

The unwritten law of the single sex sauna is “don’t look down”, though I tend to err on the side of caution and go for the ‘relax with eyes closed’ approach.

So when Bryant wandered in and struck up conversation my initial thought was – ‘good god, this man is going to ask me to slap him with a bunch of birch twigs’.

As it was however he was perfectly cordial, asking me what I did in the House. I supposed that if I told him I was a journalist, at best he might chide me for belonging to such a depraved profession and at worst, try and shove a rock of hot coal down my throat.

Honestly was the best policy I decided, and when I told him, the conversation quickly moved on to the Andy Coulson phone-hacking affair in which he was surprisingly forthcoming.

He predicted that it would end with Coulson’s dismissal and at least two further journalists in prison. I suspect Coulson would reply, “in your dreams Chris”.

Indeed as things stand now Bryant’s outcome sounded about as likely as me ending up semi naked in an unbearably hot room with an MP. Then again, in this place…

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Teacher politics

Lobbydog just spotted Katharine Birbalsingh, the teacher who lost her job after speaking at Tory conference, wandering into a meeting room at Portcullis House.

I saw her speak in Birmingham and it had to be said she talked a lot of sense, if a little too brutally for the tastes of her peers.

Now that she has some public status, and having lost her job standing by her principles, I wonder if the Tories will bring her in as some sort of teaching advisor/champion.

It’s the kind of thing Cameron would do. I just hope she knows what she’s getting herself into.

She’s already been on the sharp end of what happens when a person gets too involved in politics. Getting yet closer to the Tories now, and becoming actively and publicly involved, may spell the end of her teaching career.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Politics Vs Religion

I was actually a little surprised with the exuberance of an attack Grant Shapps and Lord Freud launched at the Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday.

Normally when politicians respond to critical comments from the church, they go down the “they’re entitled to their opinion, but I don’t agree” route.

But Freud and Shapps (a good name for a detective TV show if ever I heard one) went for a full on tag-team attack during a briefing on housing benefit reform.

It followed comments made by Archbishop Rowan Williams recently that housing benefit reforms would lead to “social zoning” with low-income families getting pushed out of expensive areas.

After Williams’ words were put to Shapps he said it was “completely untrue” and “not based on fact”.

He went on: “It’s completely untrue and I'm afraid it is borne out of not recognising all of the facts and jumping on a bandwagon that says ‘oh no this must be terrible because it’s going to mean change’.”

Lord Freud was then tagged in: “I think it’s fair to say there has been in some of the commentary, elements of hysteria and exaggeration and I think that's deeply unhelpful – largely because it frightens people who've got absolutely no reason to be frightened.

“I think people should look at these – what are rather reasonable measures – and not stir up particularly nonsensical claims about the consequences.”

I never really thought Williams was one for a political punch up, but with his bishops sauntering off to Rome a good fist fight with a couple of Tories might be a handy diversion.

Let’s hope he gets a chance to speak his mind to Freud in the House of Lords soon.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Bryant in the stocks

After watching Chris Bryant on BBC's Question Time last week I became inclined to slap him with a big wet fish, and it seems I'm not the only one.

In the House yesterday Bryant was getting ribbed all over the place.

During the European Council statement the Rhondda MP launched an attack on Cameron's upper class education, the favoured weapon of some Labour MPs. He said:

“Let me get this right. The Prime Minister failed to put together a blocking minority in July, and he did not even manage to get the Polish on board, despite the fact that the Polish Foreign Secretary was in the Bullingdon club with him at Oxford.”

Cameron replied:

“The difference between the hon. Gentleman and me is that when we were both at Oxford he was a member of the Conservative association and I was not.”

Bryant went pink and could only nod and smile sheepishly as one of his Labour colleagues asked him if it was true.

But actually the venom came from Charles Kennedy later on during the debate about political reform.

Bryant was heading the charge for Labour and when he sat down Kennedy stood up to say...

"I say in a genial way what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda - it is a pleasure because, by definition, if I am following him, he must have stopped speaking for once."

...and then added later while pointing at Bryant...

"The less one understands the issue, the more confident one can sound - witness the shadow Minister tonight."

Sticks and stones, Chris, sticks and stones.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Future not so sure for Sure Start...

I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how Michael Gove will reform Sure Start, but have run into obstructions at the Department for Education’s press office - typical blocking tactics from Whitehall.

Anyway, the email 'to and fro' that I had with DfE doesn’t make things sound particularly promising for Sure Start. Extracts below…

Me: I have some questions about the Spending Review 2010 document I was hoping you could answer please.

Relating to page 41, paragraph 2.2: “Sure Start services will be protected in cash terms and will be refocused on their original purpose, targeting early intervention on families who need most support…”

• Does this mean Sure Start will still provide the same range of services, but merely for fewer people?
• If so how will the Government decide which people can access Sure Start?
• Otherwise does it mean that Sure Start will provide fewer services as well? In which case, which services in particular will they no longer provide?

DfE: We remain committed to maintaining a national network of Sure Start Children’s Centres which offer universal services for all families and targeted services focused on the neediest families. This new approach reflects the Coalition commitment to refocus Children’s Centres and take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention. It includes an expansion of health visiting service and the introduction of Sure Start Health Visitors, offering better support for families.

Me: Please….
• list exactly which services you mean when you say “universal services”.
• list exactly which services you mean when you say “targeted services”.
• Were those services classified as “targeted” available before the spending review?
• Now that the spending review has taken place will they be available to more or less people (please give figures)?

DfE: One thing to say on Sure Start is that it is clear that Children’s Centres will need to take a much more innovative approach – working in partnership with local communities and voluntary organisations to provide a range of services. Other than that, more information will come out from the Department soon.

...make of that what you will.

Monday 25 October 2010

Put your case, don't spin it.

At the moment I’m struggling to find anything new in Cameron’s announcement of a National Infrastructure Plan.

Everything in the plan seems to have been announced already. I found one policy in there that was announced as far back as July – essentially the whole thing seems to be a re-branding exercise.

It’s an old trick that goes like this – take a whole bunch of previously announced policies from different departments and re-package them in a document targeted at a particular audience, so that you can tell that audience that you’ve come up with policies especially for them.

The audience was the CBI conference this morning, which was told by Cameron: “I can announce today the UK’s first ever National Infrastructure Plan.”

It includes Crossrail, High Speed Rail, Green Investment Bank, grants for electric vehicles etc etc.

I’m not saying these things won’t benefit business or suggesting that Cameron shouldn’t get up and tell the CBI which of his polices will help them – merely having a gripe at the attempt to win news headlines by re-announcing old stuff in a new way.

I got sick of that kind of spinning under Labour and hoped the Tories wouldn’t do it – but the signs even when they were in opposition were that they would.

I suppose it would be politically naive to think it avoidable.

De Piero's first appearance

Gloria De Piero completed her transformation to political animal today when she took up her position on the front benches of the House of Commons for the first time.

A few of the new Labour intake who have sat on the opposition front bench have appeared a little nervous, but De Piero seemed unfazed.

TV journalists tend to have an on-camera “voice” which they slip in to when reporting and De Piero used hers at the despatch box.

It gave her an air of confidence, but she’ll need to back it up with wit if she really wants to stick it to her opposite number.

On the benches behind her were two other MPs who, with De Piero, seem to be an emerging gang which will feature big in Labour’s future.

They were new shadow minister Liz Kendall, who this blog once tipped as a future player, and Tristram Hunt – who knows De Piero from student Labour days.

Former Downing Street spokesman and new shadow minister Michael Dugher, who shares an office with De Piero in Westminster also moves in the circle.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Labour needs to land more punches

There seemed to be little bile towards the Government over defence cuts yesterday considering it committed to slashing 25,000 civilian and 17,000 military personnel.

In part it might be because people don’t have enough time to think about it before they are being bombarded with another round of broader cuts today. It may even be simply because everyone accepts the cuts need to happen.

But it’s also because Labour failed to land any punches on the Coalition in the House of Commons during the statement and debate yesterday.

Miliband’s speech hardly registered in the post debate/statement commentary neither he nor any MP really made the case for slower cuts – where was the “credible alternative” that was promised.

I spoke to Labour MPs who said there hadn’t been any organisation of the party through the whips for either yesterday or today’s much more demanding event. There just hadn’t been enough time since the shadow government was put in place, they said.

The opposition’s befuddlement seemed to be symbolised when Eurosceptic Tory MP Edward Leigh stood up and encouraged the Government to work more closely with the French.

If Labour can’t attack the Tories on their Euroscepticism, then on what can they?

The failure to really score yesterday means Johnson must punch chunks out of Osborne today if the opposition wants to have any sort of impact on the debate. Do we think he’s ready?

Monday 18 October 2010

The devil will be where it always is

There was a distinct vagueness when the PM’s spokesman was this morning discussing how much detail there would be in this Wednesday’s spending review announcement.

There will be a major document with chapters on each department, laying out how much money overall they will have to spend over the next four years.

Then there will be a press release from each department discussing what the impact of that budget might be on the department’s biggest programmes.

For further details on them and other spending programmes it sounds like we’re going to have to harangue departmental press offices – which is generally time consuming.

Given the cuts are so broad I bet that once the initial headline budget figures for each department has been announced, there is going to be a wealth of detail that slips out over the next couple of weeks.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Morning Glory

Tory ladies of a delicate disposition have been all a-fluster recently because of a newcomer on their office corridor.

They were used to neighbouring Labour’s Alan Meale, but recently the Mansfield MP has apparently been letting his old chum John Prescott share his office.

It probably wouldn’t have bothered them, I’m told, had Prezza not started to use Meale’s office as a morning changing room.

Unfortunately it has meant that the ladies have on occasion been confronted with the site of a topless Prescott – enough to shock even the slowest of morning starters into action.

List of justice quagos to be axed...

Ken Clarke's Ministry of Justice has chucked a few quangos on the barby...

Four public bodies will no longer operate as statutory bodies:

• HM Inspectorate of Court Administration will be abolished
• The Legal Services Ombudsman will be abolished
• The Magistrates’ Courts Rule Committee’s function will be transferred to other rule committees
• The Public Guardian Board will be abolished.

Six public bodies will no longer operate as Non Departmental Public Bodies:

• The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales will be abolished and its functions brought within the Ministry of Justice
• The Legal Services Commission will become an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Justice
• The Victim’s Advisory Panel will be abolished
• The Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council will be abolished
• Courts Boards (19 in total) will be abolished.
• The Crown Court Rule Committee’s functions will be transferred to the Lord Chief Justice in consultation with other rule committees.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Passive aggressive Miliband

IT was mentioned at PMQs that Claire Rayner had said before she died that she’d haunt David Cameron if he messed up the NHS, leading a Labour MP to make elongated ghostie noises in the Chamber.

Once it was amusing. After that it became embarrassing, like the boy at the back of the class who won’t stop making fart noises by squeezing his hand into his armpit.

Putting silliness aside it was the most interesting Prime Minister’s Questions I’ve been to for a long time.

In large part that was because of Ed Miliband’s style. His delivery was calm and clear, and so contrasted the howling benches of Labour MPs sitting behind him.

Yet in its incision and tone, which was almost patronising towards Cameron, it carried all of his party’s hostility. His passive aggressive approach turned out to be a handy antidote against the PM’s preferred barefaced hostility.

So today the Leader of the Opposition came out on top, but Labour MPs shouldn’t get carried away. What their party has lacked for so long is someone who can score in an open goal at PMQs. That’s what Miliband did today with his attack over child benefits.

The policy has been dissected for days already – its weakest points put on show for all to see. All Miliband had to do was highlight them again in a witty way.

The real test will come in how he opposes the spending review. In the mean time Cameron will want to adjust his sights as he works out how to handle this new kind of enemy.

Miliband requires a far defter touch than anything the PM has faced in years – the battle between them will be deeply interesting to watch.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Anti-climax at Treasury questions...

What a bore Johnson and Osborne were in the House today – not a patch on the scrap between Michael Gove and Andy Burnham yesterday, (see below).

I suppose Johnson didn’t want to get too involved in a ruckus which showed up his lack of detailed knowledge.

And it would have been rather base of Osborne to pound a weaker opponent for it on his first day, may as well stick to policy and seem the bigger man.

Either way, I hope Johnson finds his fight soon because a good face off between the two has an awful lot of potential.

Monday 11 October 2010

Education questions gets catty...

There was a good old tit-for-tat verbal punch-up between Education Secretary Michael Gove and his new shadow Andy Burnham today in the Commons.

Burnham kicked off by claiming that Gove had lived up to his previous career as a journalist by displaying a “loose grasp of the facts” on the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Gove came back…

"Can I first of all congratulate him on his elevation to being shadow education secretary. Can I say that I admire the way in which he fought his leadership campaign. He was an advocate both for modernisation and aspirational socialism – which is why of course he came fourth out of five, neither of those values being entirely flavour of the month in the Labour part at the moment. Can I also thank him for his reference to my past as a journalist, it was a pleasure to spend some time in a job outside politics before I came into this House. I recommend it to the honourable gentleman."

Burnham came back with the sarcastic comment “I thank him for his characteristic graciousness” before telling Gove he had the “air of the self satisfied teacher’s pet”.

If the rest of their clashes are as much fun I’ll be turning up to education questions more often.

Talking of leaders having to grow into their roles...

At this morning’s press conference there was a moment when David Cameron didn’t quite look as comfortable in front of the cameras as he usually does.

The whole session had been delayed by 45 minutes while the PM was briefed on the tragic death of Linda Norgrove and the rescue operation that preceded it.

So his discomfort may have simply been the shock of discovering that the aid worker could actually have been killed by American troops.

But it may also have been the weight of having to face the press, while tip-toeing through the political minefield of calling for a tough investigation into the incident, while not being seen to criticise the American military.

I thought he was a little wrong footed by questions on his decision to approve the operation – in particular one on whether British special forces should have carried out the operation instead of the Americans who, insinuated one questioning hack, are considered more trigger happy.

While spending cuts have presented a challenge to the new PM, he has looked capable at dealing with the fall-out. That is in large part because he’s been able to dictate the story.

But today Cameron discovered the terrible side of what it’s like to be in power – unexpected events require big decisions, which although taken in earnest, can lead to terrible consequences.

Monday 4 October 2010

Clarke prepares for his speech...

Chatting with Lobbydog earlier Ken Clarke sought to play down any division among the Tories over sentencing policy.

There has been much written over Clarke's view that shorter sentences don't stop re-offending - and that it might be useful to look at community punishments as a replacement.

How could there be division over policy, was his tricky defence, when there weren’t any policies yet? A review still had to be carried out to form the policy and any division reported had merely been spun by the media.

Clarke said that he had probably received more criticism from ex-Labour ministers, like Alan Johnson, rather than the right of his own party.

Far be it from me to ‘spin’ something into your minds, so I’ll leave you to make up your own decisions on what to think of that.

But tomorrow we will really see what the rank and file Tories think of his rhetoric during his speech. I’ll be in the main hall checking my clapometre.

Sunday 3 October 2010

Something to fill the hole...

It was pretty clear that the Labour conference last week was almost a PR disaster because the party machine failed to put out a single story.

No ministers wanted to pre-empt the Ed Miliband speech once he had been announced leader, and so they all clammed up for three days.

So to fill a gap the press concentrated soley on the ‘Miliband of Brothers’ soap opera.

With the Government not wanting to pre-empt its own spending review I wondered whether the Conservatives might fall into the same trap by not making any announcements to take control of the news agenda.

But the Tory machine knows better. As well as Cameron’s cancer announcement this morning Eric Pickles is apparently going to make an attack on council chief executives’ pay later.

This is going to be far more lively than last week.

Wednesday 29 September 2010


The image of the new generation?

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Ed Balls wants to be Chancellor shocker

ED Balls has all but laid to rest any doubt over what job he wants after admitting to Lobbydog that he would “love to be Chancellor”.

His comments were made as New Labour leader Ed Miliband weighs up which leading figures in the party should take up which key positions.

He’s thought to be considering his brother David for the role of Chancellor, but there is still doubt over whether the defeated leadership candidate will remain in front line politics.

Meanwhile Mr Balls – widely considered to have best articulated Labour’s argument against Government cuts – is also a leading contender for the job.

When I asked him if he would confirm whether he wanted to be shadow chancellor Mr Balls was cagey. But asked whether he would want to be Chancellor, he was not so shy.

“Chancellor, I’d love to be chancellor. The question is whether I want to be shadow chancellor. Of course I’d like to be chancellor but at some point in the future – but in terms of the shadow cabinet decisions those have got to be for the leader.”

When nominations for Labour’s shadow cabinet ballot close tomorrow Balls will know whether David Miliband is sticking around, and whether his main rival for the job is out of the way.

Monday 27 September 2010

Rule changing...

There seems to be a little bit of ire among some Labour members about the results of the elections for Labour’s Governing body – the National Executive Committee (NEC).

Constituency party members vote to choose six people to sit on the committee – as representatives of rank and file Labour people.

Out of 127,331 party members balloted, a total of 88,235, around 69%, wanted London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone on the NEC, with failed mayoral candidate Oona King also gaining a place.

Two of the other candidates chosen, Luke Akehurst and Ellie Reeves, are also based in the capital.

Another of the winners, Christine Shawcroft, has a strong London connection, though she is officially secretary of Nottingham South Constituency Labour Party. Ann Black, from Oxford, was the other winner.

The contention made by several very active Labour members I’ve spoken too is that the selection is far too London-centric.

There has even been talk of a bid by members to change the party rules to ensure that there is a stronger regional presence on the NEC.

Internal debate...

The debate which characterised the 2010 General Election – how fast to cut the deficit – will now be fought out among senior figures in the Labour party.

Darling just called for a “credible plan” to tackle the deficit, his idea having been to halve it in four years.

But then on the other side you have Ed Balls who has called Darling’s idea “a mistake”.

One of Balls’ lieutenants, Jim Knight, told Lobbydog today: “We need to develop something that the electorate will understand as an alternative. The leadership debate has been kicking that around and that needs to be firmed up by our Leader and his new team.”

So Ed Miliband will be pulled both ways, by figures in his own party, by the Government and also by the press.

His contribution so far has been that Darling’s plan is a starting point – which in real-life language means “we might do it, we might not”.

Meanwhile he’s said he will wait to see what cuts the Government brings forward before deciding what to oppose and what not to.

If he’s smart he’ll put off saying exactly what he’d do as long as he viably can. It’ll keep his options open and his shadow cabinet on their toes.

They made him an offer he couldn't refuse...

Ed Miliband was doing the rounds of regional party receptions last night, soaking up the applause and buoying the troops.

His relaxed tone – the way he could name check almost everyone in the room – was actually pretty impressive.

But there was a slight twitch of his eye-brow at the East Midlands reception when he was being introduced by the Tulo (The Trade Union & Labour Party Liaison Organisation) representative.

Just before calling Ed to speak he said: “And remember – unions are for life. Not just for elections.”

It felt a bit like that scene from The Godfather when Don Corleone agrees to do a favour for Bonasera the undertaker.

Don Corleone: “Someday, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me.”

In The Godfather the day did eventually come.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Calm down dear, it's just a conference speech.

Does anyone else feel as though the reaction to Vince Cable’s speech has been exaggerated?

Yes, he uses some hostile rhetoric – words like “spivs and gamblers”, “murky” and “rigged”. But they are just words.

Most of the outraged voices seem to assume these words will eventually translate into policy which is overtly hostile to capitalism.

But if you actually read the speech on paper, without having to hear a hall of Lib Dems clap at the sabre-rattling rhetoric, there is little in there to suggest Cable is going to implement heaps of policy which is massively damaging to big business or capitalism.

In fact he talks about helping business by prizing more credit out of banks, and even then not by force, but by “carrot and stick”.

That’s something that all three parties have wanted to do.

People who got all uppity about the “capitalism kills competition” line, didn’t seem so bothered when Cable said the more anodyne “competition is central to my pro-market, pro-business, agenda.”

In his piece for the Telegraph website Mark Littlewood got all hot under the collar and said he couldn’t understand why Downing Street had approved the speech.

It was approved – indeed the PM’s office said it was “relaxed” over the text – because there is nothing controversial in its substance, only in its rhetoric.

That Cable gave an uncontroversial speech that fooled some into thinking it was radical, however, does show he is still a canny operator.

Premature celebration

Notts MP Gloria De Piero was celebrating on Twitter this morning after the most recent YouGov poll showed Labour on level pegging with the Tories on 39%.

But as academic Philip Cowley from the University of Nottingham points out: “Not really whoo hoo”.

In 1979 the Labour opposition also pulled ahead in the polls a month after a May election, reminds Cowley, but were then out of power for 18 years.

The polls in the 2010 election, with their surprising fluctuations, caused more of an obsession with the figures than usual.

But Labour would do well to get over it. Polls only matter when there is an election in sight.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Not soldiering on...

Lobbydog has been chatting with pals in the MoD and my goodness does the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) sound like it’s going to be messy.

The feeling is that there is no getting round the bloodbath it is going to become.

The debate has tended to focus on equipment and technology – fighter jets, aircraft carriers and trident for example.

But actually, I’m told, the UK just doesn’t have as many “toys” as it once did to cut back on.

Even if some of these big items are reined in, it is not going to stop there being a massive hit on personnel – which accounts for an immense chunk of expenditure.

The SDSR story may well become more about civil servants and service personnel being in the firing line.

Defector slams Clegg

You could hear the frustration in the voice of Robin Webber-Jones, the candidate who defected to Labour from the Liberal Democrats last night.

Webber-Jones fought for the Lib Dems against Stephen Dorrell MP in Charnwood in May, but chose to switch allegiance to Labour after becoming disillusioned with his former party’s role in the Coalition Government.

He said: “We stated at the General Election that we wouldn’t take money out of the economy and we talked a lot about aspiration, we also described the Alternative Vote as meagre – but now it’s all changed.

“There was a moment where it seemed getting hold of power was the only important thing for the Lib Dems, rather than actually thinking about what was being done.

“When the cuts are gone and the public services are decimated what then? The Government’s judgement call on the economy is simply wrong.

“If you listen to the likes of Vince Cable you can tell that he’s not comfortable with it either and there are other Lib Dems who don’t like the feeling that we’re going round wrecking people’s lives.

“I think Nick Clegg is looking after himself.”

I wonder how widely the view in that last line is shared at Lib Dem conference.

I'll give Clarke another shot when I beat Cameron...

First it was Blair having a dig at Ken Clarke, and now Labour leadership contender David Miliband has a go too.

Speaking with Lobbydog, the shadow foreign secretary dropped the following comment into the conversation.

"It seems Ken Clarke wasn't good enough for the Tories in the past, but if I become leader and knock out Cameron then maybe he can try his luck again."

Cheeky, and yet bold. It fits in with the rather silly spin war being waged between David and his brother Ed over who is more positive about winning the leadership.

Both have been putting out statements saying they are “increasingly confident” of victory. But I suppose here David takes it to the next level, saying as he does that he will not only win the leadership, but that he'll beat the PM too.

Friday 17 September 2010

Waiting for his invite...

Lobbydog has been chatting with both brothers Miliband over the last couple of days to weigh up how their campaigns are going.

I also took the opportunity to ask them both about whether they would be going to the unions’ rally against cuts on October 19.

Ed has been fairly unequivocal that he would go along, but David has been conspicuous in his wavering.

Earlier in the week he initially refused to commit, but realising he looked isolated perhaps, later said he would be happy to talk at any marches.

When I asked him whether he would go he said: “I don’t think the invitations have been sent out yet.”

Even if they were going to be, after that comment I‘m not sure he would get one.

Thursday 16 September 2010

The David Cameron Rap..

Clegg, the puppet on a string. Chortle.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

A book in the making?

While Lobbydog was chewing over the Mandelson and Blair books with Ken Clarke the other day, the Justice Secretary said something that should make several generations of politician nervous.

“If I ever leave politics and have absolutely nothing to do and if I persuade myself I still have my marbles, then I may fall into that bad habit of politicians and try to write my memoirs.

“Posterity had better hope that I don’t get round to do it.”

Given that Clarke has been around since 1970 (see pic), has run five Whitehall departments, served in three Tory administrations and contended the party leadership an equal number of times, it’s likely he knows one or two decent yarns.

Older tales about Thatcher’s cabinet would be one thing – but I imagine, once free from the shackles of ministerial position, he might have a few interesting points to make about Cameron and Osborne too.

Gloria is watching...

I have to admit being surprised when I heard the stories about Kay Burley having written a book with thinly veiled references to “well known” public figures.

Not surprised because the references were so thinly veiled, but taken aback by news that Burley had managed to write a book.

Fiction is something that requires subtlety and nuance isn’t it? Burley often demonstrates on Sky News that she has about as much of those things as a rhinoceros.

The three main characters are women who vie for the affections of a Prime Minister – one of whom, a feisty journalist, apparently bares similarities to Notts MP Gloria De Piero.

When I tweeted at De Piero this morning to see if she was aware of what was going on she replied “my lawyers are watching”.