23 April 2012 12:09 PM

Wedding bells on Whitehall

ESP hears congratulations are in order for Gabby Bertin, David Cameron's hugely popular spinner, who got engaged over Easter.

And it turns out there's a lovely story behind how such a busy lass found time to meet a bloke - and one from outside the Westminster bubble at that.

She put her London house up for sale and the buyer, a finance director in the City, discovered he was even more keen on the seller.  Romance blossomed and the pair plan to wed next year.  

Gabby is not alone in having to juggle a Government job and wedding planning. I understand Iain Duncan Smith's spinner Susie Squire also recently got engaged to a lawyer, and is due to marry in May. Laura Trott, Francis Maude's former special adviser now working in Downing Street, is also preparing for her big day.

It is a turnaround from the early months of the Coalition, when the pressures of Government put several relationships under sadly unsurvivable strain.

Craig Woodhouse and Joe Murphy

20 April 2012 1:06 PM

Fig trees cost axed - to just £18,500 a year

Commons officials have come up with a genius plan to save the fig trees which have so far cost the taxpayer almost £400,000.

The 12 trees will be donated to Parliament - huzzah! - but only in return for a four-year maintenance contract being handed to Bristol-based Plant Care UK they are currently rented from. The cost of this contract? Merely £18,500 a year.

The senior officials responsible for drawing up this plan - which is to be considered by the Commons Finance and Services Committee before going up to the ruling Commons Commission to be signed off (provided it is deemed acceptable) - hail it as a 60 per cent saving from the current deal. What's more, it will come into place in May, three months earlier than the existing arrangements were due to end, saving even more money!

In the proposal, leaked to the Standard, they argue replacing the trees would cost £200,000 and than any alternatives to provide adequate shade would be “more expensive, disruptive and increase our carbon footprint”.

They add it will "help a small British company to thrive by providing a reasonable return on its contract”.

It was drawn up by John Borley, Director General, Facilities, and Veronica Daly, Director of Commercial Services, after Commons Speaker John Bercow declared himself "horrified" at discovering the cost.

As chairman of the Commission, it remains to be seen what Speaker Bercow will make of the new idea. Officially, the Commons is not commenting until the proposal has been given "due consideration" by the committee

As you'd expect, campaigners are not exactly impressed and even some MPs think that spending more than a squaddie's salary on 12 trees cannot be justified.

“The maintenance cost of this opulent greenery might have come down but taxpayers will still be paying over £18,000 a year for just 12 trees, which is an outrageous amount of money,” said Robert Oxley, Campaign Manager of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Looks like the #savethefigs campaign has still got some work to do.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse


19 April 2012 12:10 PM

Is DCMS set for the chop?

Here's a curious one. In an article for today's Standard (link later), Harriet Harman raises fears that Jeremy Hunt's Department for Culture, Media and Sport is set to be axed after the Olympics.

Citing “well-sourced rumours in Westminster and the arts world”, the shadow culture secretary says David Cameron is poised to shut it down once the Games are over.

The suggestion is apparently that arts functions will be hived off to the Arts Council, media put in Vince Cable's Business Department and sport split between local councils and the Department of Health - making it more like the department of public health the Tories used to trumpet. That certainly fits with the Hunt-to-replace-Lansley rumours which flew around Westminster when the Health Secretary was at his lowest ebb over the NHS reforms.

The Standard understands that the idea has been floated in some Government circles but is not likely to happen. For one thing, it won't save as much money as might seem possible on paper. Secondly - and most critically - it would remove a seat around the Cabinet table when David Cameron carries out his first major reshuffle.

A Number 10 source described Harman's suggestions as "nonsense" and insisted there were "no such plans".

Other insiders had great fun rebutting the claims. "If Harriet Harman believes every rumour she hears in Westminster and the arts world - two of the most rumour-filled places around - then she really is in trouble," said one.

"Not exactly authoritative for an opposition spokesperson" said another, in a thinly-veiled reference to the former equality minister's "Harperson" tag.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

17 April 2012 11:56 AM

UK military chief slams early Aussie Afghan pull-out

Australia was today strongly criticised for plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned.
A senior British military source said the move was “unhelpful” and that an orderly pull-out of Allied forces could “unravel” if NATO nations go it alone and decide different timetable to exit from the wartorn country.
“If people do start cutting and running 12 to 18 months earlier, you just risk the whole end piece getting ragged and messy,” he told The Standard.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard cited security improvements and the death of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders among reasons for speeding up a withdrawal, which will likely see most Australia troops home by the end of 2013.
“This is a war with a purpose. This is a war with an end,” she said in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
“We have a strategy, a mission and a timeframe for achieving it.”
But British military insiders were surprised by the announcement.
One senior source told The Standard: “We had an agreed plan. It did make sense. It was just about feasible and viable to get out in the timeline we were talking about and hand over to Afghan forces that were just ready.
“The whole thing is going to unravel if everybody starts doing their own thing.
“Instead of it being orderly and co-ordinated, you do run the risk that you hand over to an Afghan force that is not quite ready for the task.”
Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces losing the French presidency within weeks, and US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta have hinted at accelerating the hand-over for Afghan forces to take the security lead across the country, with Allied forces stepping back from a combat role next year and no longer taking part in routine day-to-day patrols.
But Ms Gillard’s statement was seen as more dramatic and fuelled speculation that the faster timetable is being driven by Barack Obama to have withdrawal plans finalised before the November US presidential election.
She denied this and the pull-out will be discussed at the NATO summit in Chicago next month.
America and Britain have agreed to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.
If the US changed its plans, the UK is widely expected to follow them.
But a major assault by the Taliban in Kabul this week raised questions about whether Afghan forces will be able to control security after foreign troops withdraw.
US forces number about 90,000 of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force. France has 3,600 troops in Afghanistan and Britain 9,500. Australia has about 1,550.
With 32 Australian soldiers killed and hundreds wounded, the Australian government is under mounting pressure to withdraw troops, and faces an expected election next year which Ms Gillard is forecast to lose.
The Australian soldiers’ primary objective has been training an Afghan National Army brigade to take responsibility for security in Uruzgan province.

Nicholas Cecil

16 April 2012 2:55 PM

Cameron's union claim backfires

David Cameron has been out on the stump today, declaring the Conservatives the party of "the strivers, the battlers, the family-raisers, the community-builders" and having a good old go at Labour for wasting money.

Part of that included an attack on Camden council, who as the PM put it "spent almost £200,000 on seven trade union activists".

But a little bird at Camden has been in touch to say the council actually spent more on union activists when it was run by the Tories and Lib-Dems then since Labour took over. To add insult to injury, my source quoted Taxpayers' Alliance figures to back up their defence.

"Employees who carry out branch official, convenor and shop steward roles are entitled to time off. The number of branch officials and convenors and amount of time taken, expressed as a full time equivalent, is outlined below:
2008/09 – 18, 8.0 full time equivalents
2009/10 – 18, 8.0 full time equivalents
2010/11 – 17, 7.8 full time equivalents"

Says my insider: "So LB Camden paid for *more* TU facility time when it was run by the Tories/LDs (2008-10) than when Labour took over (2010-). Hmmm."

But I'm sure the people who researched Cameron's speech knew that. Didn't they?

UPDATE: This is turning into a nice ding dong. Tories have been in touch to say their group on the council have proposed axing so-called pilgrims for the past two years but the motions have been voted down

It's also worth noting that the council, making £83.5 million of cuts, provides free office space to unions worth more than £30,000 a year.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Why the Boris V George contest is hotting up


Set aside the scrap between Boris and Ken.  Because if our poll is right, MPs will soon be buzzing about Boris v George.

The big stories over recent weeks have been a gaffe-free (so far) campaign by a maverick but distinctly Tory candidate for London Mayor, and the shipwreck of George Osborne’s third Budget, which seemed almost anti-Conservative to some MPs, with its attack on wealthy philanthropists, grannies and Cornish pasties.

Unluckily, for the Chancellor, his most damaging decisions have all coincided with Boris’s rising stock.  If there is a Johnson victory on May 3, nothing will stop Tory MPs gossiping about a topic that usually kept back for the silly season: Who will take over as Conservative leader when David Cameron stands down in, say, 2017?

Our latest YouGov poll contains plenty of ammunition for the pro-Boris camp. He is seen by over a third as the candidate for the rich, yet stands a clear six points ahead of Ken Livingstone. Clearly, siding with wealth creators is not a bad electoral tactic. Note too the irony that Labour has been attacking Boris's £250k part-time earnings as a columnist in the belief that voters would be outraged. Far from it: Londoners at least seem relaxed about people who are filthy rich and stick up for other rich people.

Boris is 10 points more popular than the Conservatives are in London, even though Labour is gaining on the assembly, which suggests his brand has broader appeal than the more cautious Cameron/Osborne.  He's also miles ahead among women.

It would be hard for Johnson to stop speculation even if he wanted to - and there is little sign that he wants to. In the past year he has denounced the 50p rate, defended the City, attacked Ken Clarke’s sentencing plans, called for a referendum on Europe and attacked housing benefit cuts as “ethnic cleansing”. Some of these positions were clearly designed for his City Hall battle - but others looked like markers with the Tory Right.

Ask Tory ministers who will succeed Cameron and most will instantly name Osborne. But take a straw poll of backbenchers, a more right wing group, and you find few certainties and a lot of anxiety about Conservative values and policies, plus real anger about the Budget.

If Boris Johnson wins he will be the most successful Conservative in Britain today, with a mandate from the biggest British electorate outside a general election. Cameron and Osborne have yet to win a general election outright. The case for Boris is that he looks like a winner.

Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter       @JoeMurphyLondon