30 September 2011 2:05 PM

Red lines for Cameron

Not but two setpiece interviews grace tonight's Evening Standard.

As well was Sayeeda Warsi (here) there is a talk with Mark Pritchard, secretary of the '22, in his Shropshire constituency (here).

He gives a clear warnings to the PM not to give more ground to the Lib Dems on such issues as immigration, where the Tories must deliver on their bold election promise to cut numbers to 1990s levels.

Pritchard warns:  "I think our natural supporters have frustration that we cannot do everything they would expect from a Conservative Government today. There is concern that we are always defaulting to the Liberal Democrats on issues that are particularly important to core Conservative voters."



Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter   @JoeMurphyLondon



Revealed: The Tory conference slogan (and more)

We can reveal that David Cameron's confernce will open under the slogan .... drum roll ....

"Leadership For A Better Future."

It's a phrase that acknowledges tough times but contains that classic Cameron optimism, pointing to a rturn of the good times if people stick with a tough leader.

In today's Standard there's a lively interview with the charming Tory chairman Sayeeda Warsi, who reveals the slogan and explains why leadership is the prime focus of the conference - and why families will "instinctively" swallow the tough medicine prescribed by Dr Cameron.

 "It would be so easy for us to get the [government’s] chequebook out and not make the tough calls. But ask people if they would prefer to have it easy now or, by taking tough decisions, create a better future for their children, most will instinctively choose to put their children first.”

Warsi is on her usual bubbly form. Shge reveals that she, Cameron and other ministers will be recroding audiobooks for blind chuildren during the conference (it's their latest social action project and us Press boys are invited to do the same).

The first considered Tory attack on Ed Miliband's speech is also there. She says Labour created the something-for-nothing society and asks how Ed's speech squares with Labour's opposition to removing legal aid from cheeky squatters.

There's lots more ... a return to old fashioned conference debates, some amazing techie innovations etc.

But my favourite line is a cracking joke about when Chris Huhne compared to the evil Dr Geobbels. “When I was young my mum wanted me to be a doctor and I never lived up to her expectations [Warsi became a lawyer]. What I always say is, the Conservatives might have made me a Lady - but it took the Liberal Democrats to make me a doctor.”



Joe Murphy

follow me on twitter  @JoeMurphyLondon



29 September 2011 12:28 PM

Ups & Downs in the Mersey hit parade

After the Labour conference, who is up and who's down in the people's party?


Ed Miliband
Labour's leader went down ok in the hall but his speech was far from a big success.  The strong verdict of media observers (not always reflected in the actual coverage) was that it was a limp speech that had little to say beyond navel gazing and Tory-bashing.  Businesses saw it as signalling an age of greater regulation and interference.  Ed's week started badly with the cock-up over tuition fees and the failure to carry the leadership ballot reforms in full.  His brave, hit performance at the public Q&A (given a graveyard slot, presumably in case it went wrong) did not get the coverage it deserved. And finally he forgot the name of a Scottish candidate in the middle of an interview extolling the virtues of said candidate (It was Ken Macintosh, Ed). As the polls already suggest, his week really should have been better.


Yvette Cooper
The shadow home secretary emerged as the conference darling with a string of impressive performances and is now being seriously talked about as a future Labour leader - not least by her husband Ed Balls, who said he would stand aside if she wanted to run. Such mischief-making from hubby is unlikely to have earned him brownie points at home, and it could place Yvette under pressure to make a tilt for the crown if Ed Miliband's personal poll ratings don't pick up.

Ed Balls
The shadow chancellor made the most important speech of the week, putting Labour into a slightly better position to campaign for trust on the economy. As part of that he acknowledged past mistakes by Labour. More strikingly, he dealt with his own reputation for trickery when he declared that George Osborne's OBR will police Labour's next set of fiscal rules.  Balls also passed the poisoned chalice of being the media's leader-in-waiting to wife Yvette Cooper.  Is he really ruling himself out? We shall see.

Lord Falconer
Tony Blair's former flatmate emerged out of the ether as a contender to be parachuted into the shadow Cabinet. Brownite delegates nursing hangovers at the annual rally in Liverpool may feel their headache has just got worse as he was an ardent defender of the Blairite agenda. If he returned to his old stomping ground as shadow justice secretary, it would be a battle of heavyweights with Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.


Tony Blair
Booooo!  Ed Miliband never planned or wanted to spark such a reaction, and it was clearly only down to a minority, but the damage to Labour's most successful leader ever was done.  New revelations about his wheeler dealings with despots and PLO grumblings are more serious problems, as is the looming Iraq inquiry verdict.

Ivan Lewis
Ed's crowd had to quickly distance themselves from his proposal in the hall for a register of licenced journalists who could be struck off for bad behaviour.  He tried to explain he only meant a violuntary scheme by the industry but too late to stop awful headlines and open speculation about his future in shadow cabinet.

Meg Hillier
Universally tipped for the sack in the next reshuffle, which could come very soon. "Utterly useless," snorts a Labour colleague.

Shaun Woodward
Enough knives were out for the former Tory to keep his butler polishing them all night long.

Peter Hain
He negotiated the Refounding Labour blueprint which was partly torn up by the NEC on day one. Not a great start for conference.

Joe Murphy, Nicholas Cecil, Craig Woodhouse

28 September 2011 11:43 AM

An end to something-for-nothing volunteering

Ed Miliband was emphatic yesterday in wanting to end the "something-for-nothing" culture in Britain and replace it with a "something-for-something" society.

It seems Labour is planning to take this logic to its ultimate end - rewarding people for volunteering.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell has set out how this might work in her speech to conference. She wants people to contribute more to society, particularly if they use public services, for example by asking former in-patients to help people recovering at home after hospital treatment.

In return, people who help out will be incentivised. Tessa hailed a Lambeth "community dividend" scheme which gives volunteers credits for council tax, discounted council services and time in the gym - suggesting it could be rolled out across the country under Labour.

It is all part of Labour's response to the Big Society, which also came under attack from Tessa today.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

27 September 2011 1:40 PM

Eagle's flying rhetoric

As Ed Miliband puts the finishing touches to his conference speech, he could do worse than to read the address given earlier by Angela Eagle.

The shadow Treasury chief secretary had a couple of great Government-bashing phrases in her speech.

She compared David Cameron to a "medieval physician bleeding an already weak patient - his only prescription is more austerity".

And she had her own take on comparisons of the Coalition to a marriage, saying: "Some say it’s a marriage of convenience. To me it is more of a sleazy affair. Exciting while it lasts, but destructive and likely to end in total embarrassment."

Sign up that speechwriter.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Labour melting before our eyes

Not, not today's ComRes poll but the ice sculpture in the breakfast room at the conference hotel this morning.


You could actually see the substance dripping away - though it is worth noting that it's the old Labour red rose logo, so the parallels might cheer Ed Miliband after all.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

26 September 2011 4:37 PM

Ed stitched up

Ed cardi 

Among the conference stands here in Liverpool is a 1950s-style haberdashery that is home to the RNIB. Their slogan is "a stitch in time saves nine", making the case for investment in small-scale eye surgery such as cataracts or face much higher costs for the likes of hip replacements caused by vision-related accidents. But it is their marketing material that deserves a prize, as this mock-up of Ed Miliband in a trendy cardigan shows.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Murphy's bold move

Last week I wrote about Labour's bid to decontaminate their defence brand with plans for a radical overhaul of procurement rules.

Today shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy has gone a lot further - making a bold move to paint Labour as the party of the armed forces.

In his conference set-piece, Mr Murphy announced that service personnel past and present will be able to join the party for £1 and that he had established a "Labour Friends of the Forces" group under former defence secretary and Nato chief George Robertson and para-turned-MP Dan Jarvis.

Murphy attacked the Government for cutting troops' pensions and equivocating over signing the Military Covenant into law, telling delegates: "I wanted to challenge the ill-informed orthodoxy of the past which says that Labour is the party of the NHS and the Tories are the party of the Forces. At a time when the Tories are proving that they are neither, a Labour opposition needs to be both if we are to be a Labour government."

He went on to vow Labour would be a "political home fit for our heroes".

It might be a laudable aim, but it leaves Murphy open to accusations of playing politics with the forces. Let's see if it sparks a storm.


Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

22 September 2011 11:57 AM

Decontaminating Labour's defence brand

It looks as though next week's Labour conference will see a huge emphasis on moving the party forward, if the evidence so far is anything to go by.

Ed Miliband has given two interviews, to Progress and the New Statesman, with a similar message. He wants to "rip up the rule book" and argue how the country's true potential is being "held back".

Ed is warning that he won't return to New Labour but will target the centre ground - something Jim Murphy is stressing today as well.

The shadow defence secretary has unveiled a review into the debacle that was defence procurement, acknowledging Labour's mistakes and coming up with some interesting ideas that could become party policy.

It is being hailed as the first major contribution to filling Ed's famous "blank sheet of paper" (a phrase he admits was a mistake today), and includes ideas such as axing major projects that go 20 per cent over budget or time, and building in an emphasis on supporting British industry.

There is also a suggestion that defence spending should be set on a 10-year timescale to stop it being a political football - something Labour accepted but failed to implement in government.

Murphy is keen to end the "conspiracy of optimism" where defence firms and the MoD underestimate costs and timetables to get them past the Treasury, only to see them balloon afterwards. A bit late for that, you might argue, but it shows that shadow ministers are willing to confront the mistakes made in office.

Given the Government has hammered on about the £38 billion black hole in the MoD budget, it could even be seen as an attempt to decontaminate the Labour brand on defence.

Murphy argues the Government has "already lost its way" on defence procurement. And pushing a line I expect we will hear a lot over the next week or so, he added: "This process shows that even in opposition Labour can be the party of the centre with the fresh ideas and real energy - all of which are essential for us to be the party of government again."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

20 September 2011 2:28 PM

Cut your hours to help the poor

Liberal Democrat conference would not be Liberal Democrat conference without some wacky cutting-edge, blue skies thinking proposals.

And just as the Lib-Dems are getting all managerial, along comes Simon Hughes with an idea to raise eyebrows.

He is suggesting that Britain's economic and social ills could be tackled by a "redistribution of work".

Under his plans, the over-worked would stop being tied to their desks for 70, 80 hours a week and would reduce their workload to spend more time with their families and on leisure activities - hence improving their work/life balance.

The under-employed or the unemployed would then find it easier to find work because it is not all being hogged by the over-worked. So their living standards would rise as they earn more.

"A fairer and more sane distribution of work is needed if we are to have an improved quality of life for all citizens," he says.

While not advocating a 35 hour French-style week, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader adds: "In the capital there are huge numbers of people, particularly lawyers and bankers, who work extremely long hours accumulating huge amounts of money they barely have time to spend.

"We also have many thousands of people who want work but cannot find any at all, or who are working part-time and would like to work more."

"Overwork has hugely damaging consequences for families, relationships and the quality of personal and community life.

"Lack of work is one of the biggest causes of poverty and poor physical and mental health. It is clear that we need a redistribution of work if we are to achieve the redistribution of wealth."

Interesting ideas from an MP whose workload makes 70 hours a week look part-time.

Nicholas Cecil


The Lib-Dems' blank cheque

Time and again during the Lib-Dem conference, Nick Clegg and others have said there isn't a magic button in Whitehall that ministers can press to find more money that can be poured into the economy.

But are they missing a trick? Going round the exhbition hall at the ICC I spotted this - a Lib-Dem blank cheque.


Of course with all the banker-bashing going on, they might not be able to find a bank that will cash it. Perhaps this would be better - a Lib-Dem fundraising box, yours for just 95p.


Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Energy bills - the fightback starts here?

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has some tough words for the so-called "big six" energy firms today, vowing to "get tough" amid soaring household fuel bills.

He has announced a raft of measures to help hard-pressed consumers switch suppliers more easily, bulk-buy power as part of a collective, and make sure they get information about cheaper offers elsewhere. Regulator Ofgem will also be beefed up, with the prospect of fines for firms that go straight back to bill-payers rather than the Treasury pot, and "anti-competitive" predator pricing stamped out.

"There is hardship now, and we are determined to help," said Huhne. "Higher energy bills hurt".

It is an explicit recongition that households are struggling with double-digit rises imposed by all of the big six firms in recent weeks.

Whether it will work remains to be seen, but the measures have been given a strong welcome by consumer groups.

Comparison site said they would allow Ofgem to "take the gloves off" and were "just the kind of ammunition that consumers need".

Consumer Focus said the package would help save "much-needed cash" but warned a competition commission probe might still be needed if there is no progress. Which? said action was "overdue but welcome".

For their part, the industry has defended its record. Energy UK director Christine McGourty said Britain has "one of the most competitive energy markets anywhere in the world" and "the cheapest gas and the fourth cheapest electricity of all the leading European countries". She also backed measures that encourage people to make sure they are getting the best deal.

With the nights drawing in and the mercury plummeting, progress can't come soon enough.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

19 September 2011 2:08 PM

Clegg demands £3 billion rich tax

Good news for the wealthy is that the 50p top rate of tax could go under a deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

Bad news for the wealthy is that the Lib-Dems are demanding another levy on the rich if the Tories want to get rid of the 50p rate before raising the starting threshold for paying income tax to £10,000 to help the less-well-off.

Even worse news for the wealthy is that the Lib-Dems want the new levy, possibly a mansion tax or land tax, to raise as much as the 50p rate was intended to bring in not what it has actually added to Treasury coffers.

The 50p rate was expected to raise £3 billion a year.

But a review by Revenue & Customs is expected to find that many rich people have managed to avoid the top rate of tax and it has raked in far less than predicted.

So, if the Lib-Dems get their way, any rejoicing by the wealthy at getting ridding of 50p may be short-lived once they realise that many of them may be paying more under a new rich tax.

Nicholas Cecil 

Minister's attack on "brainless" MPs

Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone was on great form last night at a fringe event held by the Campaign for Gender Balance.

The topic of discussion was whether MPs could job share and how Parliament could be more family-friendly - both backed by the Hornsey and Wood Green MP.

She gave some moving insights into her attempts trying to make a career in politics as a single mum, half-joking that she hadn't seen her two twenty-something daughters since they were eight and saying that they have a slogan relating to her high workload - "Our mother loves everyone in Hornsey and Wood Green better than us".

There was also a cracking line that if men are left in charge they make "terrible decisions" - a controversial statement from a minister in charge of eradicating sexism.

But some of her most robust comments were reserved for the behaviour of fellow MPs in Parliament.

She attacked the points-scoring and adversarial approach in the Commons, saying: "Unfortunately what you observe, and what I have tried very hard not to do is to enter into that ridiculous slanging match that goes on. I think it is despicable and destructive."

It has "nothing to do with real life", she said, and yet you see women "falling in to that pattern".

"It frustrates me greatly that in the conduct of the House people behave as if they haven't got a brain," was her damning assessment.

UPDATE: Tory MP Philip Davies has come up with a brilliant quote after Ms Featherstone's claims that men make terrible decisions. "One of the most terrible decisions that men have made was making her Equalities Minister, so I suppose you can see where she is coming from," he said.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

16 September 2011 2:14 PM

Lib Dem Chiefs Rally Behind Land Tax

Vince Cable's plans for a mansion tax sparked a revolt at the Liberal Democrats' annual rally two years ago.

But this time the Business Secretary may win more support from party chiefs for a land tax on the wealthy.

Several senior Lib-Dems are making positive sounds about it.

The party's deputy leader Simon Hughes tells The Standard: "The current system of council tax is outdated and unfair - many people on average incomes find paying their council tax a struggle whilst millionaires do not pay a fair share. Liberals and Liberal Democrats have long argued for a fairer system of land and property taxation.

"I welcome any proposals which move the burden of taxation towards developers and large land owners who have made huge profits out of rising land values in the capital and away from many hard working people on lower and middle incomes."

And it is not only Lib-Dem Lefties and the rank-and-file who are warming to a land tax.

Moderate MP Norman Lamb, Nick Clegg's chief-of-staff. said: "I'm attracted by the proposition of a land tax.

"It makes it much harder for the very wealthy to avoid taxation by squirrelling away their assets overseas."

Treasury minister Danny Alexander has also voiced support for a new levy on the wealthy.

Chancellor George Osborne can be expected to lead Tory opposition to a land tax.

But wealthy owners of homes with large gardens, especially in London and the South East, should not doubt the resolve among some Lib-Dems to push this controversial levy.

Nicholas Cecil


15 September 2011 3:27 PM

Danny admits we are better off outside the euro

Breaking news ... Danny Alexander, the former campaign chief for Britain in Europe, has admitted that it's a good thing he didn't win the Battle of Sterling.

He 'fessed up in an interview with the Evening Standard, when asked if it was lucky that the pro-euro campaign did not prevail.

"I think there is no doubt at all that the flexibilities we have, not being part of the euro, have been very helpful to the UK in dealing with the economic crisis we've had," he said.

Asked if that was politico-speak for admitting he was wrong, DA responded: "Who knows how it would have un-folded if things had worked out differently. I'm still a very firm believer that our national interest lies as a wholehearted member of the EU engaging positively to get the best for Britain. That's what always motivated me and that has not changed one iota."  He did not, however, say he still wants to join the euro.

There are lots of other good angles in the interview with this unassuming Lib Deb star.  He tells the unions that the Government is making contingency plans to defeat the strikes; urges his party to stand firm with the austerity policies and the Coalition; attacks Boris Johnson over the 50p rate and rebuffs the Tory Right on repatriation of powers.

But I like his description of why being brought up on a remote island (Colonsay, pop. 110) made him the man he is today.


Joe Murphy

follow me  on Twitter  .... @JoeMurphyLondon




Tory Cabinet minister opposes Commons seat carve-up

David Cameron may be able to dismiss Vince Cable's objections to the carving up of parliamentary seats as Vince is Vince...or perhaps somewhat less complimentary words.

But the Business Secretary is not the only Cabinet minister to be angry at the Boundary Commission's proposals.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is not happy, The Standard understands, over the plans to tear up his constituency and create a new Chingford and Edmonton seat.

Mr Duncan Smith is likely to win the new seat, according to political experts.

But he is irritated, to say the least, over the shape of the new constituency which will span the River Lee, cross borough boundaries and be split by a series of reservoirs dividing communities.

While not seeking to rock the boat, he is set to ask the Boundary Commission to review its proposals for this corner of London.

Such a move would no doubt encourage other MPs to contest the redrawing of constituencies which they regard as damaging to their communities and their parliamentary prospects. After all if a Cabinet minister can, why should they not?

So could there be a large scale revolt? One MP predicts the chances of the Boundary Commission's blueprint being adopted is just 50/50.

Nicholas Cecil 




14 September 2011 4:08 PM

Miliband close to deal with unions

Hot news.  I'm told that Ed Miliband has all but struck the vital deal with the unions on his internal reform package.

Official party sources are refusing to brief on the subject, which they want to emerge as an eve-of-conference success.

But an insider says that things moved decisively since Monday evening. "There have been some developments in the ;last 36 hours  whcih I think suggest that it's going to be resolved," said the insider. "I'm very clear there will be a way forward at the NEC on Tuesday."

This is big news for backers of Ed M.  He wants to cut the union vote from 50 per cent to around 40 to cure the democratic deficit in conference votes.  In a balanced package he will beef up the status of party conference, hopefully ending the dreary years when Tony Blair turned it from a place where decisions were made to a US-style rally.

In addition, Miliband aims to make local parties more outward-looking.  If the package goes through, Labour will be a different animal. The leadership will have to listen to members, and members will have to listen to the ordinary public rather than sit navel-gazing.

Incidentally ....

I've just heard a fuming denunciation of today's Times splash from a senior Labour insider.  While the party's official spokesman says "we don't comment on polls", this well-connected source let rip.

"The Times poll shows Labour clearly ahead but the Times chooses to editorialise on its front page about Ed Miliband.  It's hard to tell if this is reporting or campaigning. It seems crass. I can't remember them doing this about Cameron at the same point."

Ouch. That seems rather harsh to me, since the poll revealed some pretty dismal ratings for Miliband.


Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter @JoeMurphyLondon


13 September 2011 12:20 PM

Vince leads fightback against new seats

Vince Cable is not happy about the proposed carve-up of London seats by the Boundary Commission.

He is not too bothered about the prospect of a high profile election showdown with Tory Zac Goldsmith in the new seat of Richmond and Twickenham.

He believes it is "eminently" winnable for the Liberal Democrats.

But his ire is at the commission for not placing more importance on borough boundaries and the identity of specific communities in the capital.

He told The Standard: “In order to get the right size of constituency, no account has been taken not just of borough boundaries but any sense of identity. That will cause a lot of concern.

“They are re-introducing 19th Century boundaries. A lot has happened since then.”

In 38 out of the proposed 68 constituencies for London, borough boundaries will be crossed. Two will span rivers.

Mark Field, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, is opposing the Square Mile being stripped from his constituency.

While Labour former Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, whose Dulwich and West Norwood seat is being carved up, said: “These changes are needlessly disruptive for the people we represent.”

A high profile Labour clash was mooted in some quarters between former Transport minister Sadiq Khan and Chuka Umunna in the new Streatham and Tooting seat.

But Mr Umunna could seek to contest the new Brixton seat.

Nicholas Cecil

UPDATE: Full Vince Cable quotes on new constituencies: "In order to get the right size of constituency, no account has been taken not just of borough boundaries but any sense of identity. That will cause a lot of concern.

"They are re-introducing 19th Century boundaries. A lot has happened since then.

"It's fair to say there will be quite a lot of unhappiness in the local community."

On his Twickenham constituency: "There will be a lot of concern locally because half the constituency is being taken out of the borough."





12 September 2011 2:22 PM

With brothers like these...

It will be interesting to see what kind of a reception Ed Miliband gets when he addresses the TUC tomorrow.

The brothers have been sabre-rattling hard about possible strike action over pensions reform this autumn, and a quick look at the agenda reveals they aren't impressed with a lack of support from Labour.

Motion 29, which will be debated on Wednesday and has been tabled by Mark Serwotka's PCS union (which has already called another strike for November), reads: "Congress expresses its concern at the pathetic response (my emphasis) of the Labour leadership and instructs the TUC General Council to press for support for future action in defence of the agreement signed with the last Labour government."

Interestingly, it comes at the same time as Ed is facing fresh pressure to overhaul his party's links with the unions.

In an article timed for maximum effect, senior academics from the University of Bristol argue that union intervention in Ed's leadership victory was so decisive that it calls into question the "legitimacy of the electoral process".

Richard Jobson and Mark Wickham-Jones also say it "undermines Ed Miliband's authority as leader of the party", and was effectively a return to the era of the block vote.

The case for reform is now "unanswerable", they argue - just as Ed is putting the finishing touches to any ideas he wants to set out at his own conference later this month.

I'm not sure the brothers will like that.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

09 September 2011 1:46 PM

Tory Left Fight Back

MPs on the Tory Left may be outnumbered by Right Wingers but they are flexing their muscles ahead of the party's annual conference.

Former Cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell has joined immigration minister Damian Green in warning against drifting to the Right.

Tension on the backbenches is rising over the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, vividly highlighted recently by Nadine Dorries' intervention at Prime Minister's Questions.

Mr Dorrell suggests that the new intake of Tory MPs, many of whom are strident on Europe and law and order, may become less ideological after they have been in Parliament for a while.

He warns against moving away from "One Nation" Conservatism, echoing Mr Green's concerns over a "seductive chorus" calling for more hardline policies.

Nicholas Cecil 



Cameron reassures the shires

After a week that began with Nick Clegg seizing the education agenda, David Cameron has grabbed it back on behalf of Tory voters in the leafy shires and suburbs.

Cleggie stressed on Monday that he had ensured the next wave of free schools will go to deprived areas, along with his pupil; premium to help poorer pupils.

Now Cameron has spoken up in his Norwich speech for the middle class parents who fume that their own schools are OK but just not good enough.

He calls them "coasting schools" and said too many were mediocre. He contrasted  schools in his own Oxfordshire and in Michael Gove's Surrey with the success of two inner London schools - Walworth Academy, south-east London,  and Burlington Danes Academy, in Hammersmith.

The London schools have high numbers on free school meals but manage 70 and 75 per cent getting five or more good GCSEs.

“Only 16  state secondary schools in these two relatively affluent counties did better than those two inner city schools,” he said.

“Put another way, more than 4 out of 5 state schools in Surrey and Oxfordshire are doing worse than 2 state schools in relatively deprived parts of inner London.”

Mr Cameron went on: “That must be a wake-up call. Why is there this difference?  Why are these schools coasting along?”

This looks like a response to MPs like Nadine Dorries who complain that the Lib Dems seem to be dominating policy. Stand by for more like it in the conference season.



Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter    @JoeMurphyLondon

The Treasury case for lower fuel bills

When electricity and gas firms hike prices, piling misery on households, it's usually only a matter of time before politicians come out in favour of hard-pressed bill payers.

Indeed, earlier this year Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said consumers "don't have to take price increases lying down", urging people to "hit (firms) back where it hurts" by switching suppliers.

But it seems the Treasury has a vested interest in keeping bills low. Answering a PQfrom Labour's Cathy Jamieson, Justine Greening set out how higher bills squeeze household spending, in turn stopping people splashing the cash on items which have a 20% VAT rate. Energy is taxed at 5%

She said: "If extra expenditure on domestic fuel was funded by less spending on goods and services that attract the 20% standard rate of VAT, HMRC would receive less VAT revenue, since domestic fuel and power is taxed at the reduced rated rate of 5%."

Quite what Treasury officials will make of the news that the Coalition's green policies will see bills rise by £300 is anyone's guess.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

08 September 2011 3:20 PM

Towards a winter of discontent

The civil service PCS union, which went on strike with teachers and lecturers in June, has announced plans for another walkout later this year.

The news came on the same day that two other unions, Prospect and FDA, threatened industrial action in the autumn as well.

It is a clear sign that the negotiations on the Government's public sector pension reforms (pay more, work longer) - the latest round of which take place today - are not going well from the organised workers' point of view.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber told me as much in a pre-congress interview as he warned that strikes were likely.

"At the moment it’s an extraordinarily difficult situation where we are negotiating in good faith to see what the possibilities might be but there has been no indication from the Government of a real willingness to step back from these changes, and at the moment the course they are set on is apparently irrevocably committed to forcing these things through," he said.

Asked if that would lead inevitably to more industrial action, he went on: "I think there is a very real prospect that other unions will feel they have to respond in that way to try to persuade the Government to take a more reasonable approach."

Much of the bitterness is centred on the background to the pension reforms. With public servants facing a wage freeze and job cuts, asking them to pay more is seen as a "tax" on state-paid workers. Mr Barber was also critical of the Government's "whack" approach - just announcing changes without any consultation.

Add in to that the feeling that ministers are not prepared to budge, and it's a pretty volatile cocktail.

Mr Barber hates the phrase "winter of discontent", but we could yet be heading that way.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Balls: Lead the world, George

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls was making an interesting argument about the economy on the radio this morning.

Essentially he was saying that George Osborne should water down austerity measures to show global leadership because only Britain has the right political climate for such a move.

He told Today: "You can't have credibility without growth. The problem is in the eurozone, politically they are completely stuck, they can't reach a political agreement about what needs to be done. In America, tragically with the election coming up, the Congress and President Obama are at loggerheads, they can't politically resolve this. The irony is the one country which has got the political strength to change course is Britain and to make that argument in the world, the problem is, it's almost the opposite problem.

"Our Coalition has decided the cornerstone is sticking to a deficit reduction plan which isn't working, has flatlined our economy. Our problem is, we can't argue for sanity in the eurozone, in America, if we are sticking to a failing policy in Britain."

I find it hard to believe that Labour would hail Osborne as a strong Chancellor if he tore up his deficit-busting plans and tried to paint it as a way of "saving the world" - as Gordon Brown might put it.

There was another eye-catching line from Balls on the same topic, which might have had Angela Merkel choking on her breakfast.

He said: "In Europe austerity isn't working but the German people are not going to face up to that unless they are led to do so...Here in Britain we should be leading those debates."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

05 September 2011 12:21 PM

MPs wind up for Super Tuesday

The House of Commons is back, and it seems MPs are determined to make sure everyone knows it.

In the old days the summer recess yawned on and on, right up to party conference season, but MPs now get dragged to Westminster for two weeks in September in an attempt to avoid criticism about the length of their break.

Rather than coast through the fortnight, there is a packed Parliamentary agenda with the calendar for tomorrow looking particularly busy.

Select committees take centre stage in the morning, with Culture Media and Sport vying with Home Affairs for attention. DCMS have a much-anticipated hearing on phone hacking, with key News International figures including former legal manager Tom Crone set to answer questions following the explosive Clive Goodman letter. Meanwhile Keith Vaz's home affairs group will hear from Boris Johnson and others on the riots which left parts of London smouldering last month. Other committees have hearings on high speed rail and public appointments.

Attention will then switch to the Government's controversial re-formed NHS shake-up, which is back before the House of Commons. Lib-Dem MP Andrew George is vowing to vote against the Health and Social Care Bill despite a raft of changes during the "listening exercise".

As that gets under way, David Cameron will appear before the liaison committee - the collected board of select committee chairmen - for what promises to be a wide-ranging session.

Super Tuesday, you might say.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

01 September 2011 3:43 PM

Oh Darling! The backlash begins

Extracts from Alistair's Darling's forthcoming memoirs - a great scoop for Labour Uncut - have been causing quite a stir over the past couple of days.

The former chancellor's reflections on the likes of Gordon Brown ("brutal and volcanic") and Sir Mervyn King ("amazingly stubborn and exasperating") are the stuff Westminster hacks dream of. But they are less impressive to those named in the book, and Mr Darling's colleagues are starting to make their feelings known.

While Ed Miliband was diplomatic when asked about them, saying Darling had an "absolute right" to pen the book and admitting peopl would find them "interesting", shadow chancellor Ed Balls has been less complimentary.

Balls accused Darling of giving George Osborne a gift in raking over old ground, in almost the same breath as he confirmed there was a plan to replace the Chancellor with, er, Ed Balls. Not that he wanted the job, obviously.

Another former Labour frontbencher look exasperated when I asked about the memoir, offically due to be serialised at the weekend and released next week.

"He should never have been given the job," was the scathing assessment. Expect more of the same in coming days.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Britain opposes death penalty for Gaddafi

Should Colonel Gaddafi face the death penalty for the atrocities committed by his brutal regime?

Ministers have insisted that it is up to the Libyan people to decide where he faces justice, be it in Libya or at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

A trial in Libya could see him given the death penalty.

In an interview in The Standard, Overseas Aid Secretary Andrew Mitchell has made clear that Britain would oppose the death penalty for the tyrant but believes it is up to the Libyan people to decide his fate.

"People will have different views on the issue of the death penalty but it's a matter for the Libyan people and their new government, the National Transitional Council," he says.

"Britain's position is that we have signed up to conventions which are opposed to the using of the death penalty, so that is the position of the Government."


Nicholas Cecil