23 March 2012 1:16 PM

Osborne's West Country wipeout

With both the granny tax and the pie tax looking like massive own goals, there surely had to be a sensible political motive behind George Osborne's Budget. After two days of head-scratching, and following the announcement of minimum prices for alcohol, I think I've worked it out: it's all a clever bid to rid the Lib-Dems from the West Country.

While much of the focus on charging VAT on hot food has focused on the fact it wiped millions off Greggs' share price, down in the South West it is being painted as pasty tax - an assault on the Cornish icon.

Lib-Dem MPs Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) and Andrew George (St Ives) are far from happy about it, vowing Cornishmen would fight on the beaches to oppose the pasty tax.

It's a Coalition policy that is likely to hit them - and fellow Cornish Lib-Dem Dan Rogerson - at the ballot box. With the South West also a favoured hang-out of Britain's increasingly ageing population, so is the move to squeeze pensioner allowances - potentially allowing Tory MPs to sweep them away west of the Tamar.

Now the minimum pricing for booze has been unveiled, and that's got cider producers (predominantly based in the South West) up in arms too. It'll go down particularly badly in the Lib-Dem cluster of seats around Somerset, where cider is virtually worshipped.

My Friday afternoon theory is Osborne hopes these measures will make the Lib-Dems even more unpopular than they already are in some key heartlands, and is relying on Tory voters in the South West to stay loyal. If that happens, it brings an outright Conservative majority ever closer.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

13 March 2012 1:09 PM

Lib-Dem: Tories won't be trusted on NHS

Another day, another bid to de-rail the Government's NHS reforms. But this one is gathering some significance, and could see Lib-Dems joining forces with Labour to vote against the Health and Social Care Bill.

Five Lib-Dem backbenchers have tabled an amendment to a Labour backbench opposition day motion, which "declines to support the Bill in its current form".

Labour sources understand that in a rare move, it will be selected for debate by Speaker John Bercow and that Ed Miliband's troops are happy to back it.

The full amendment calls for an "urgent summit" between ministers and Royal Colleges, professional and patient groups to plan health reforms "based on the Coalition agreement" - which pledges to stop top-down reorganisations.

One of the rebels, Bradford East MP David Ward, said the move was needed because a string of concessions secured by Lib-Dem peers in the Lords had failed to quell opposition because they had been accepted by the Tories.

“The situation we find ourselves in - and I’m not sure there is an awful lot we can do about it  - is we are in coalition with a party that people will never, ever trust on the NHS and that is a huge problem,” he told the Standard.

“The view from the public is that if the colleges are against it then there must be something wrong.”

John Pugh, chair of the Lib-Dem backbench health committee, said the move and a letter from Royal College of GPs chair Clare Gerada offered a chance for a U-turn.

“Overshadowing this is the Prime Minister’s desire not to look weak and you can read the Gerada letter as an attempt to give the PM room to manoeuvre,” he said.

“There are few enthusiasts for this legislation and thought needs to be given to showing the Government a way out of what must be an agonising dilemma.”

One senior Lib-Dem source dismissed this as posturing by the "awkward squad", while another hailed more than 1,000 amendments secured by the party's peers on the Bill.

For their part, Downing Street rejected talk of a U-turn. “We are fully committed to the Health and Social Care Bill which is about improving the NHS while protecting its founding principles,” a spokesman said.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

12 March 2012 2:46 PM

Budget talks - by video link from the US?


The Quad is about to meet at No 10 for crunch talks on the Budget. But I hear that David Cameron is willing to hold further discussions by phone or video link from the United States if necessary this week.

That indicates that the negotiations between the PM, DPM, Chancellor and Treasury Secretary are far from settled.  And all the sticking points are said to be about tax.

“I doubt if everything will be nailed down today,” said a senior source. “But they would like to make significant progress this afternoon.”

A clampdown on stamp duty dodgers and a squeeze on pension tax relief for high earners are both set to be agreed, I hear.

But the Liberal Democrats’ Mansion Tax plan that would hit Londoners in big houses will probably be shelved for at least a year, pending a broad negotiation over taxes hitting the very wealthy, including the 50p income tax rate.

The suggestion is that the price for Mr Osborne announcing his intention to scrap the 50p rate on £150k+ earners, is a major review of all taxes on the very wealthy, including the Mansion Tax and Nick Clegg's new Tycoon Tax idea. In other words, yet another even longer negotiation.

Some Lib Dems have a brutally simple way of making it add up: If the 50p rate is found by the HMRC review to bring in £2.5 billion, then the new taxes on the wealthy should bring in the same amount, whether they are the Mansion Tax, the Tycoon Tax or a further pension squeeze.

This afternoon's talks are not the end of the discussion.


Joe Murphy

Follow me on Twitter    @JoeMurphyLondon



14 February 2012 2:34 PM

A broken-hearted Coalition?

Kudos to Unison, seizing on Valentine's Day to keep up pressure on the Government over Andrew Lansley's controversial NHS changes.

The union put on a picture stunt earlier on, with 'David Cameron' and 'Nick Clegg' holding a broken heart.

Unison's "heartfelt" plea was "not to break our hearts by breaking our NHS".

But with the Commons in recess, senior Coalition figures may be wondering if the love has dropped out of their relationship.

Not only was Lib-Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes calling for Lansley's head on Sunday, but the welfare reforms are back in the Lords and expected to suffer fresh defeats (ping pong has started). Also in the mix are Budget discussions, with the Chancellor preparing his set piece for next month.

On that note, James Forsyth had a great titbit in the Mail on Sunday - the Quad of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Cameron were due to have a meeting tonight after unexpectedly finding their diaries clear. But there was an obvious reason, and once wives found out some quick rescheduling took place.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

09 February 2012 11:56 AM

Injury time

Is there a curse hanging over Whitehall?

Ministers have fallen victim to a range of injuries and ailments in recent weeks. First Transport Minister Theresa Villiers broke her collarbone in a cycling accident, then Scotland Secretary Michael Moore got chicken pox, and then Treasury Chief Secretary Chloe Smith broke her foot.

It has created some difficulties for the Government, with Moore having to postpone a meeting with Alex Salmond (prompting jokey suspicions that biological warfare had broken out in the row over Scottish independence), while Villiers was "walking wounded" to vote for the welfare cap.

But as one Westminster wag has just joked, they've got off lightly compared to Chris Huhne - nursing a "broken career" after charges forced him to resign.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

07 February 2012 5:49 PM

A bad day for Lansley

It was never going to be an easy week for Andrew Lansley, but I'm sure even the Health Secretary wasn't quite expecting to see Downing Street sources saying he should be "taken out and shot" over his controversial NHS reforms when he opened his newspapers this morning.

There is certainly a lot of anger among Tory MPs about the reforms, which face a mauling in the Lords tomorrow. One told me Lansley had "failed to do the pitch rolling" and complained they didn't know what the shake-up was really meant to do. Another complained: "We spent years convincing people that the NHS would be safe in our hands - this bill is destroying that reputation".

Lansley was also faced with a little, erm, local difficulty. First it emerged NHS South West was facing a £370 million black hole which campaigners warned could put vital services at risk. Then it emerged St Helier hospital in Carshalton could be the first victim of plans to hand doctors billions of pounds of the NHS budget.

This is particularly sensitive because the hospital is in Health Minister Paul Burstow's constituency. Neighbouring Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh claims a merger between St Helier and St George's fell through last week in part because GPs in the new clinical commissioning group are planning to reduce dramatically the use of the hospital. Fears have been raised it could close as a result.

Mr Burstow told ESP this was "shameful political scaremongering" and warned people not to be "duped" by it. Certainly there were other considerations for the merger's collapse as well, but Dr Martyn Wake, who is joint chair of Merton CCG, does say that "as GPs we are keen to keep our patients well and out of hospital".

"Whilst Ms McDonagh may not agree with the government's policy to put GPs in charge of commissioning health services we all feel it is most unjust to blame local GPs for the historic financial challenges facing our local hospitals," he said.
"The shift to care out of hospitals and into the community is no different in scale in Sutton and Merton than it is in other parts of south west London and the rest of the country."

But Labour and other campaigners are adamant. Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham told ESP: “The fact a Health Minister’s own local hospital may be the first major casualty of the Government’s reorganisation might bring home to him how wrong these reforms are.

“This is a glimpse of what is to come if this Bill goes through. Fragmenting decision-making in this way threatens the ongoing viability of hospitals. Paul Burstow has now got the biggest of all reasons to drop the Bill.”

There appears to be little appetite among Tories for the Bill to be dropped entirely, though (as my colleague Nicholas Cecil has reported) some Lib Dems would be delighted if that happens.

While today was a bad day for Lansley, expect a few more ahead.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

02 February 2012 2:05 PM

Top Totty banned from Commons - new details


Labour's Kate Green won the fastest campaign ever today by getting a beer called Top Totty banned from the Commons.

She stood up at 12 to protest at finding the sexist ale on sale in Parliament’s Strangers Bar. By 2pm it was withdrawn from sale.

Amusingly, I gather there was a rush to buy it in the intervening hours - mainly, one should add, from members of the Press Gallery.

I gather that at least half a barrel is left over, which begs the question who will sup it.

A picture of a bunny girl in a bikini featured on the pump alongside the name, which even readers over 80 will guess is slang for an attractive young woman.

Demanding a debate, Green said: “I was disturbed last night to learn that the guest beer in the Stranger’s Bar is called Top Totty and there is a picture of a nearly naked woman on the tap.”

Embarrassingly, I can reveal that the woman who modelled the provocative picture visited the bar yesterday with the brewery’s boss to savour their success in being chosen as a guest beer.

A Commons spokesman said later this afternoon: “We have withdrawn it from sale today. I do not think there is very much left.”

Strangers Bar - aka The Kremlin - has a different guest beer each week.  Top Totty is brewed by Slaters in Stafford and was nominated to be a guest beer by the town’s Conservative MP Jeremy Lefroy.

Astonishingly, nobody seemed to realise that it might be controversial.

UPDATE -- #TopTotty is now trending on Twitter.  Slater's Brewery must be be delighted with the plug.

 UPDATE#2  The model is a brunette, I have been told. The blonde hair was added later

Joe Murphy


Follow me at Twitter   @JoeMurphyLondon



25 January 2012 3:34 PM

Ed's Class War dog-whistle


Ed Miliband won PMQTs today by playing the man as much as the ball.  Most intriguing was his heavy use of phrases like "arrogant" and "smug" towards Cameron.

"Total arrogance! ... How bad do things have to get in our economy to shake him out of his complacency."

"He and his Chancellor are the byword for self-satisfied, smug complacency."

" .. put aside [your] pride and arrogance ... "

At first glance, these are just adjectives that the focus groupies have found to be toxic for the Dave brand. But it's actually a bit more than that.

I'm told by a shadow cabinet source that the key purpose is to reinforce Ed's message that Cameron is "out of touch". But subliminally they go further, by planting the idea that the PM is an over-privileged toff.  Complacency implies he is insulated from the real world. Arrogance suggests he sees himself as belonging to an elite. Smugness, that it is an uncaring elite.  Pride suggests his sense of superiority outweighs his sense of justice.

It's reminiscent of, but much more subtle than, the controversial tactics that Gordon Brown's people tried in 2007 and 2008, when they hired kids in top hats to follow the PM around.  It all backfired, of course, and was (mostly) abandoned after a bit of a hoo-ha at the disastrous Crewe & Nantwich by-election in 2008.

My source insists the current campaign is legitimate because it is reflects Cameron's political choices, which Labour regard as favouring the few, arguing:  "We can't use class war, but we can remind people that he has not experienced in his life what they have to go through in theirs, which influences what he does."

Some may well disagree, viewing it as "playing the man" rather than the issue. But what's undeniable is that it worked this afternoon. Cameron had no ready retort.



Joe Murphy

follow me on twitter    @JoeMurphyLondon



24 January 2012 11:48 AM

Nick Clegg's McBreakfast

Nick Clegg was at the McDonald's training centre in East Finchley this morning, to hail an announcement that the burger giant is creating 2,500 new jobs this year.

Given that it was an early morning call (a return to his "alarm clock Britain" campaign?), the Deputy PM enjoyed a spot of breakfast while he was there.

He tucked into a sausage and egg McMuffin and washed it down with a cup of tea, I'm told.

Looking at the details of the jobs announcement, it's no surprise Clegg chose to visit. While McJobs have attracted criticism in the past, more than half of the 2,500 announced today are expected to go to under-25s, with almost a third to first-time workers. Clegg has said tackling record youth unemployment - running at over 1 million - is his top priority for 2012.

(UPDATE: Labour's Kevin Brennan has just brilliantly coined it the Clegg McMuffin on Twitter)

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

21 December 2011 12:00 PM

Lib Dems reject Balls coalition olive branch

Liberal Democrat MPs have rebuffed an offer from Ed Balls to form a coalition with Labour, suggesting he may have been on the "mulled wine" early.

They also questioned why Lib-Dems would want to join a "boat which has no captain".

Mr Balls made his brazen offer this morning, appealing to Lib-Dems to desert the Tories and form a new coalition in the New Year.

“I think it would be much better now and for the future of the country if they did,” he said.

“I don’t think they should wait until 2015. I could serve in a Cabinet with Chris Huhne or Vince Cable tomorrow.”

His olive branch drew a swift response from Lib-Dems.

Senior backbencher Tom Brake said: "It is the season of goodwill, but I fear Ed Balls may have been at the mulled wine when he said this.

"This Coalition exists to clean up the mess Labour left behind. Not only are Ed Balls and Ed Miliband in denial about the economy, over 13 years they trampled on our civil liberties, launched an illegal war in Iraq, pandered to big business and the City, and left a huge gap between the richest and the poorest.

"So, thanks but no thanks."

Lorely Burt, chair of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, added: “I can’t think of a single reason why Liberal Democrats would want to jump ship into a Labour boat which has no captain and no credible plans to get us out of the economic difficulties that we have."

While the party's deputy leader Simon Hughes said: "Ed Balls is free to say what he likes but the Labour Party is not a credible party of government and has no credible plan for our country."

So that's clearcut, then. Or is it? Or does Mr Balls have some intelligence on a Lib-Dem defection as he seeks to woo Lib-Dem voters?

Nicholas Cecil



08 December 2011 3:40 PM

Clegg's olive branch to strikers

While Andrew Lansley was offering a new deal on health sector pension reform but sparking fresh anger from the unions, Nick Clegg has been out been out trying to smooth tensions with the public sector.

His comments are significant because they come in the aftermath of last week's pension strike - branded a "damp squib" by David Cameron - and George Osborne's fresh round of austerity which will hit public servants hard.

The Lib-Dem Deputy PM acknowledged public sector workers "bristle" at talk of paring back the public sector, and insisted rebalancing the economy was not "code for cutting them adrift".

Warning against re-opening old divisions, he said: "Many of our public sector workers are making sacrifices, and I am hugely grateful for it. And I am grateful to the people making sacrifices in the private sector too.

"And what will hurt both groups is if we now allow this debate to become polarised - as if our dilemma is helping the public sector versus the private sector; the North versus the South. Picking industry or picking banking.

"Because if we play into these bygone caricatures of the left and the right, if we allow our society to fracture into these camps, that is the surest way to drag the UK back to the 1980s."

I suspect there is a dual message here: one for the public sector, to say the LibDems feel their pain. And one for Tory Coalition colleagues, to say lay off the tough talk.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

30 November 2011 3:13 PM

Sports Personality row reaches Parliament

The anger over the all-male shortlist for this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year has been widespread, and MPs are not immune.

Labour's Geraint Davies has tabled an EDM on the issue, signed by 14 colleagues so far, which reads:

That this House is disappointed that there are no women in this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist; notes the lack of women in previous year's shortlists; further notes that high profile women in sport play an important role in encouraging women and girls to participate in sports; and calls on the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport to do more to involve and promote women in sport.

Shadow culture secretary (and long time equality campaigner) Harriet Harman has also weighed in, declaring it "wrong" that no women are on the shortlist and demanding immediate action from the BBC. After the news that representatives from men's magazines were on the judging panel, she also asks whether the selectors were all-male. And she adds: “This shortlist highlights the failure over many years to give women’s sport the media coverage it deserves. There must be action to change that.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

29 November 2011 11:35 AM

Ukip moves in on Labour in London

Activity is hotting up in Feltham and Heston, where the by-election sparked by the death of Alan Keen is due to take place on December 15.

Both Labour and the Tories have selected their candidate to fight the seat, while the Lib Dems pick their contender tonight. Business consultant and Fabian Women's Network director Seema Malhotra will be in the red corner, while Hounslow Council Tory leader Mark Bowen (who has fought and lost the seat twice already) will be in the blue corner.

Also hoping for a strong showing are Ukip, who are aiming to beat the Lib Dems into third place. And in a nice bit of colour, candidate Andrew Charalambos found the office he has moved into was previously occupied by ex-Labour MEP Robert Evans.

"In the same way that Labour have left the ordinary working man and woman behind, they are now leaving the offices empty. We are happy to pick up in both places," he said.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

09 November 2011 2:38 PM

Clegg tells Europe to forget Robin Hood tax

Yesterday George Osborne delivered a robust message to European finance ministers on a proposed new tax on the City. Bluntly put, his view was "forget it".

Now Nick Clegg, the most high-profile pro-European in the Cabinet, has popped over to Brussels to hammer it home.

As part of a speech warning that Europe must "reform or wither" he also said a continent-wide financial transaction tax (FTT) would unfairly hit Britain and be passed on to those who can least afford it.

Here's the relevant passage: "We cannot support the European Financial Transaction Tax that has been proposed.

"It would have a massively disproportionate impact on the City of London, responsible for more than half of the revenues that would be taxed. And, according to the Commission’s own analysis, it would also reduce EU GDP as a whole.

"But even for people who don’t care about the City of London or Europe’s economic performance, the FTT doesn’t make sense because it completely misses its target.

"This isn’t – as it’s often presented – a painless tax on banks and City speculators, the authors of the financial crisis. In reality bankers will be left sitting happily unaffected in their offices, passing on the charge to the people they are acting for.

"It’s pensioners who will pay this tax, and businesses. Companies that are vital to our economies, that are big engines of manufacturing or retail, that employ thousands of people across Europe, but just happen to do financial services business too.

"That is in no ones’ interests."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

03 November 2011 11:59 AM

Clegg's warm welcome to returning Libya heroes

With David Cameron part of frantic efforts to save the Euro in France, Nick Clegg had a rather more enjoyable engagement this morning.

The Deputy Prime Minister was at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire to welcome home returning heroes from the Libya conflict.

He took the opportunity to thank troops on behalf of Britain and Libya with some moving words - and said they had made the key differnce in ridding the world of Gaddafi.

Here is some of his address: “This was an allied effort. But I am here to pay tribute to you, the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces. You may have had the benefit of world-class aircraft. You may have had the benefit of precision weaponry. You may have had the support of the world’s greatest military alliance. But it has been your skill, your commitment, your bravery that has made the difference... 

“Thanks to the protection you have provided the Libyan people in their darkest hour, they have thrown off the yoke of Gaddafi and his regime. And, because of you, the guardians of freedom, they now have hope for their future.

“The road ahead will not be easy. But the people of Libya will have the support of the British Government as they build a new society. And Libya will no longer be a pariah state on the Mediterranean. Which means you have done a great service for Britain's national security too.

“You have saved countless lives. You have performed magnificently in testing times. Now, as you return to your families, my thanks, the nation’s thanks, the thanks of the Libyan people go to you.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

27 October 2011 2:45 PM

The Lib-Dems' perfect jibe at Tory rebels

After Monday's huge Tory rebellion on Europe, it was only a matter of time before Coalition taunts about it emerged.

I've just been told one which must classify as almost the perfect Lib-Dem jibe, allowing MPs in the yellow corner to take aim at the Tories and Labour at the same time.

Told with relish to Tory rebels, it involves their Coalition partners crowing: "It was a shame to see you couldn't offer the Prime Minister the loyalty that we - or Ed Miliband for that matter - were able to on Monday."

Not that Lib-Dems are entirely delighted with the trouble caused by the rebels. They are worried David Cameron will try to "meet them half way" with a raft of measures that will be anathema to the Lib-Dems but won't go far enough to satisfy the eurosceptics.

"You should never placate implacable opposition," I'm told.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

25 October 2011 3:33 PM

Clegg's tough message to Eurosceptics

Nick Clegg has been out and about this morning, vowing to tear up red tape for small businesses. But the issue of Europe has inevitably raised its head after yesterday's huge Tory rebellion, and the Lib-Dem leader has been delivering a pretty tough message to people who are, after all, members of his own Government.

Talking to ESP, he said the Eurosceptics were playing "Russian roulette" with British jobs and warned them to be careful what they wish for. He was also clear on the issue of getting powers back from the Brussels, condemning it as a "smash and grab raid".

Here's a full transcript:

ESP: How did you feel yesterday seeing the Prime Minister having to go through that rigmarole with his backbenchers and then all the Tories marching through the lobbies? Because it's your Government at the end of the day as well, isn't it?

Nick Clegg: Yes absolutely, it's our Government. It's our Government but the Conservative Party has a long standing bee in its bonnet about arcane European institutional questions. I just happen to think it is a monumental distraction from the key task of repairing the damage to our economy and getting people jobs and economic security and I think these ideas knocking about as proposed by Conservative eurosceptics of either pitching the whole country into months or years of uncertainty through some in/out referendum or launching some smash and grab raid across the channel on powers from Brussels - they are neither justified nor in the interests of Britain. Because at the end of the day British jobs, British prosperity, the British economy, British families, British communities are massively dependent on a successful European economy and Britain being successful in that economy. And the way you create a more successful European economy is be leading the debate, not leaving.

ESP: It sounds like there is a sense of frustration in your voice?

NC: Look, it's one of the many reasons I'm not a Conservative. I'm pro-European but not in a starry-eyed way. In fact I'm probably more realistic than anybody about the flaws in the European Union because I have done it myself. I have significantly changed Europe. I for instance, when I was a Euro MP, passed ground-breaking legislation to scrap a whole raft of red tape that was stopping British consumers from benefiting from lower telephone costs, for instance. I have been talking just now about Ed Davey getting a patent law in place, getting all the other countries to agree to reducing red tape. We have just had the Commission come out finally for something I have been campaigning about for years, which is a more sensible, more devolved Common Fisheries Policy. Because I think the way the Common Fisheries Policy was over-bureaucratic...was wrong. So the way you change Europe is not by stamping your foot in Westminster but by getting out there, self-confidently saying this is the way Europe should go, we are going to lead the debate."

ESP: Do you think this has lanced the boil or stored up trouble?

NC: Look, if there is one thing I have learnt over the years it's that people who are obsessed by European treaties - article this, article that - remain obsessed. I think they are playing Russian roulette with people's jobs. Because it is people's jobs and livelihoods and the money in their pocket which is at stake if you push Britain to the exit door - and I'm not going to let that happen."

It's worth noting that his comments haven't gone down well on the Tory backbenches. Mark Pritchard, 1922 committee secretary, said the country can't be "held to ransom by Europhile Lib-Dem MPs".

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

19 October 2011 2:33 PM

Laws to be deputy to Michael Gove?

David Laws delivers a scathing critique of England's education system today, accusing it of failing thousands of pupils by accepting low standards.

In a well-argued piece in The Standard, the fallen Cabinet star says that nine out of ten pupils should be expected, certainly by 2020, to be getting five good GCSEs including maths and English, not 53 per cent.

Hundreds more schools should be classed as "failing" if they are only producing satisfactory rather than good results, he adds. On this, he highlights schools in leafy, middle class areas could do far better.

His views will chime with those of many parents, as well as Education Secretary Michael Gove who is determined to raise standards in schools.

Mr Laws was forced to resign as Chief Secretary to the Treasury over his expenses but no-one doubts his talent.

His decision to speak out in such a forthright manner on schools will fuel speculation that he could be brought back in this field which he knows well having been Liberal Democrat education spokesman.

Nicholas Cecil

11 October 2011 12:05 PM

Too sexual for kids?

David Cameron is today announcing a multi-pronged attack on the commercialisation and sexualisation of children.

Along with a one-stop website for parents to report raunchy and violent images on TV, print, videogames and adverts, and a plan to allow all new broadband customers to stop pornography being available in their homes, are new guidelines on billboard advertising from regulator ASA.

The body is pledging a case-by-case approach to what complaints will and won't be upheld, but the new rules include restrictions on scantily-clad models and the like being shown near schools.

But do they go far enough? You decide.

Here are images which the ASA guidelines say are unlikely to be considered sexual - despite featuring a woman in a bikini and a topless man.

Asa1 Whereas these might be seen as sexually suggestive and are likely to be restricted - despite the fact the couple are fully-clothed.

These, on the other hand, are likely to be banned from outdoor billboards entirely for being overtly sexual.

I've asked whether the Prime Minister thinks these guidelines are tough enough. A source said he is glad progress is being made but that "more needs to be done".

Two leading campaigners against the sexualisation of children, Tory Claire Perry and Lib-Dem Jo Swinson, have both welcomed the new guidelines.

"The proof will be in the pudding, but perhaps it will encourage advertisers to be a bit more creative without having to rely on sex to sell everything," Swinson said.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

05 October 2011 11:42 AM

Lib-Dem bashing finally breaks out

In stark contrast to the Liberal Democrat conference, where attacks on the Tories seemed to come at the rate of one an hour, the Conservative gathering has been notable for a lack of bile thrown at the yellow corner.

William Hague set the tone by heaping praise on Nick Clegg, and ministers have largely stuck to the script (apparently under instruction and causing great irritation to Peter Bone).

But the entente cordiale has finally broken thanks to MEP Martin Callanan, Tory leader in the European parliament.

I've seen a copy of his speech and there is a cracking passage about Chris Huhne's fondness for the euro.

Mr Callanan mentions the Lib-Dem Energy Secretary's book making the case for the single currency, which is apparently availble new on Amazon for £99 or second hand for 1p.

"I wouldn't recommend that you spend a penny on it," the speech says.

"Or on second thoughts, maybe spending a penny on it is exactly what it deserves."

After reading a couple of pro-euro passages from it, Mr Callanan goes on: "Now you will understand how relieved I am that in Europe we don’t have to be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats."

Mr Bone will be jealous.

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 2:47 PM

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 




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."





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 



30 August 2011 11:50 AM

Banking battle ahead

It looks like George Osborne has an unenviable choice on the horizon with regards to banking reform.

Today it's the turn of the CBI to warn against a large-scale shake-up once the Vickers Commission reports in the coming weeks. Director General John Cridland said it would be "barking mad" to take action while the economic recovery was so fragile. It follows a similar argument yesterday from Angela Knight, the chief executive of the British Bankers Association, who said "now is not the time" for new regulation.

Both are evidence of a mounting campaign to hold back from an overhaul when Vickers reports - the commission is expected to recommend ring-fencing retail and investment banking operations.

Osborne will have to decide whether to push ahead with the recommendations and at what pace, and while he might share the concerns of the CBI and the BBA, he has another factor to balance - the demands of the Coalition.

Earlier this month Lib-Dem Lord Oakeshott warned it would be "curtains for the Coalition" if no action is taken.

"What would not be acceptable is for Vickers to come out with a radical solution and then the Government not to implement it immediately and in full," he told the Standard.

"Every Liberal Democrat from top to bottom is united about that. It will be absolutely critical - a Lib-Dem red line, bottom line, sine qua non - whatever you want to call it. That will be crunch time for the Coalition. If the Vickers Report is kicked into the long grass, it will be curtains for the Coalition."

It will be interesting to see what Osborne comes up with.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

18 August 2011 1:11 PM

Eviction for "travellers from hell"

DEFYING a Liberal Democrat backlash against some of the toughest measures against rioters, housing minister Grant Shapps is pressing ahead with plans for new powers to evict "travellers from hell".

Currently, town halls and other social landlords can turf out "neighbours from hell" who repeatedly plague their local community with anti-social behaviour.

But they are hamstrung by the law to evict violent thugs who commit offences in another borough or district.

Mr Shapps is determined to change this with new legislation.

"Neighbours from hell who become visitors from hell should not be able to escape through some loophole in the law," he told The Standard.

"If you committed a crime in south London but happen to live in north London, you should still be exposed to losing your home."

Mr Shapps also wants a "fundamental review" of the relationship between benefits that individuals receive and wider society.

"This is, if you are honest, a big test for this coalition Government," he said. "There is an unwritten contract between society and individuals which says we will help you.

"The part of that contract that has gone missing is there are responsibilities in return for receiving assistance and one of them is you agree you are not going to go out and deliberately destroy other people's lives.

"If you break that social contract, there should be a price to be paid and this could be your tenancy or your family's tenancy could be put at risk."

Senior Liberal Democrats, though, have warned that evictions could cause more social problems and end up costing society more.

Nicholas Cecil


17 August 2011 2:01 PM

A U-turn on community payback?

Yesterday I wrote about Nick Clegg's call for convicted rioters to be draped in orange clothing and made to clean up affected neighbourhoods.

But this enthusiasm for so-called community payback schemes appears to be something of a radical conversion. No sooner had I posted than Labour's David Hanson, a former Home Office and Justice minister who is now part of the shadow Treasury team, got in touch to say the Lib-Dems had previously attacked the schemes as gimmicks.

Indeed, he dug out a press release from the party, dating back to 2009.

It reads:

Commenting on today’s court ruling that a teenage convict had a ‘reasonable excuse’ for refusing to wear a Community Payback fluorescent jacket, Liberal Democrat Shadow Justice Secretary, David Howarth said: "The real question about these fluorescent bibs is whether they help to reduce future crime."

"Since the Government has no evidence that this is the case, it should not have introduced them simply as a headline-chasing gimmick."

In Mr Hanson's words: "How times change."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

16 August 2011 4:48 PM

Clegg's very Lib-Dem riot payback

On another busy day in Westminster, one thing stood out to me from Nick Clegg's post-riot plan.

Not the "communities and victims panel" to hear tales of suffering and find solutions, nor the plan to meet convicted looters "at the prison gates" and force them into work - however that will happen - but the "riot payback scheme".

"In every single one of the communities affected there will be community payback schemes, riot payback schemes, where you will see people in visible orange clothing making up the damage done, repairing and improving the neighbourhoods affected," he said.

Hang on a minute, visible orange clothing? Did Mr Clegg pick the colour on purpose? After all, it is the hue of Lib-Dems "winning here" up and down the country, as the day-glo placards have it.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

05 August 2011 2:10 PM

Drugs and hacking at Lib-Dem conference

As was widely reported this morning, this year's Lib-Dem conference is likely to back moves towards legalising all drugs for personal use.

It's certainly a headline-grabbing topic and will create tension with Tory partners in Government if it becomes official party policy.

ESP can reveal that delegates in Birmingham will also debate phone hacking in a move that could lead to tighter regulation of the press.

A high-profile spot has been reserved for an emergency discussion of the scandal, though the exact wording of the motion for debate will not be settled until activists meet.

Senior backbencher Adrian Sanders, a member of the culture media and sport committee, said it could centre around press curbs.

“We are not talking about regulating the press in a way that inhibits press freedom but sets certain standards that we expect everyone to follow with punishments available if they do not,” he told ESP.

There will no doubt be a lot of crowing from Lib-Dems that they never got into bed with the Murdoch empire. Lib-Dem sources said senior figures such as party president Simon Hughes and media spokesman Don Foster are likely to want to speak in the debate, which will take place on the same day as a question-and-answer session with Mr Clegg.

A couple of other conference tit-bits: The theme is "in Government, on your side". Expect more stress on hard-working "alarm clock Britain" that Nick Clegg (himself an early-rising working dad) has pushed before.

It comes as the party is looking at how to portray itself in coming elections following the poll savaging it got in May. Flesh is being put on the bones that the party is "more credible on the economy than Labour but fairer than the Tories," I'm told.

There will be differences up and down the land, however. In Scotland there will be more of an emphasis on the Lib-Dems as a moderating influence curbing the excesses of their Tory partners.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

04 August 2011 3:29 PM

Curtains for Clegg?

When a Lib Dem as fearless and well connected as Lord Oakeshott warns it will be "Curtains for the Coalition" if the big banks are let off the hook again (see our fascinating interview here) then you can be sure that the PM and Chancellor will be reading every word closely.

But is the curtain falling for Nick Clegg?  Just read his utterly riveting reply to my question whether Nick Clegg will still be leader at the next election and beyond.

"What matters for Liberal Democrats and our future as an independent party is that we fight the next election as a completely independent party, at least equidistant between the Conservatives and Labour."

He then pointed out that 38 of 57 seats were won against the Tories, with Labour tactical votes. "The only way we can retain those seats is by persuading those voters it is still worth supporting us. That is the real strategic imperative and we have not long to do it.

"How do we get from here to a credibly independent Liberal Democrat Party in 2015? I think it will be difficult to persuade people we are a completely independent force if, on the eve of the poll, Liberal Democrat ministers are still having to defend what many would see as Tory policies."

Interpret this as you will but several points are obvious.  He did not say, "Of course Nick will be leader!".  He did say that the party needs to dramatically change people's perceptions in a short space of time. He suggested the Coalition will end before the election, leaving Britain with a short period of minority Conservative rule with the Lib Dems crossing the floor to the Opposition benches. In such a situation, appointing a new leader might be logical.

And just who might that be? Lord O is not saying, but read his mischievous response when I asked if he thinks his old pal Vince Cable will retire at the 2015 election. "I've never seen him more full of beans. I'm sure Vince's best years are yet to come."



Joe Murphy

follow me on twitter  @JoeMurphyLondon





Lib-Dems on the move

The search is over. After a long hunt, the Liberal Democrats have found new offices to replace their historic Cowley Street HQ.

Out will go the warren-like home which insiders complain encourages people to work on their own. In its place will come a more open-plan space on one floor, a square "donut" around lift shafts in the centre.

“Cowley Street is over four floors and there are some pokey little offices and some bigger offices but they are like silos," I'm told.

““It is not good for internal communication and it encourages people to work in isolation.

“At the new place people will be working more side-by-side, communicating much better. It is just a better way of running a modern organisation - never mind a political party.”

My source says it part of moves to professionalise the Lib-Dem operation. But there is also a symbolic element to it - the new offices are on Great George Street opposite the Treasury. It is a move from a quiet Millbank backstreet towards the beating heart of Government on Whitehall.

You could argue it's a transition that Lib-Dem ministers have already made but the rest of the party has not entirely followed.

The move is pencilled in for the August bank holiday. Not the most relaxing way to spend an extra day off.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

02 August 2011 12:07 PM

Trouble down the tracks

As MPs head off on their holidays, one issue in particular will be burning away in the back of their minds - the forthcoming boundary review.

Labour's Jonathan Reynolds has set out his concerns over on Labour List - particularly that the inevitable infighting over seats will stop his party from being an effective opposition.

He's not the only one. MPs from all parties have variously described the coming fallout from plans to cut the Commons by 50 to me as "an impending bloodbath", a "bunfight" and "a situation that's going to get very nasty".

There are stories of rival MPs - sometimes from opposing parties, sometimes from the same party - trying to come up with backroom deals to nobble their neighbours when initial proposals are put forward in the autumn.

Party officials are taking the issue very seriously. Detailed tactics are being kept under wraps, but I've heard of Tories being called in to HQ to run through potential scenarios on a regional basis.

One unintended consequence of all this is that the 2015 intake is likely to feature very few new MPs. As sitting members are dislodged when seats are re-drawn, they will doubtless put themselves up for other constituencies that become free.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

28 July 2011 12:04 PM

PM will give evidence under oath

It was not clear from Lord Justice Leveson's statement, but ESP can reveal that David Cameron and every other witness will give evidence under oath.

Sources close to the inquiry stress that the PM is not being singled out but that all witnesses are being treated the same.

Downing Street says Mr Cameron has nothing to hide and will give evidence in whatever form the judge asks.

It is possible that ministers from the Labour government, and perhaps Gordon Brown, will also be called to give evidence. They too would be under oath.



Joe Murphy




15 July 2011 12:09 PM

Burying bad news

4pm Update!!  It turns out that Andy Coulson was at Chequers in March as the PM's guest.  That's two months AFTER he resigned.  That's a nugget well worth burying.

5.45pm:    My old ally Paul Waugh has just blogged on the Coulson sleepover and on the Crackerjack timing of this disclosure.


STOP PRESS::::   Are they burying bad news already?  I learn that No 10 are thinking of rushing out this afternoon a list of all David Cameron's meetings, business and social, that he has had since he became Prime Minister last May. An official No 10 spokesman says: "I cannot say either way at this stage." 

It seems that within hours of Brooks sensationally quitting, they are rushing out a document that may reveal meetings with her, Murdoch and Murdoch jnr. Nothing on the Order Paper, no WMS, no mention of it at Lobby and on a non-sitting day.  Last time one of these came out it was by a WMS.

Here's the original blog post:


It looks like they are already planning to bury bad news on "Super Tuesday" - the amazing day next week when Met chief Sir Paul Stephenson, elusive tycoon Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch are all due to be questioned by MPs about phone hacking?

It seems that the Government is holding back piles of potentially embarrassing reports for publication just as the select committee get under way.

Among Whitehall documents that are due out before MPs start their summer holidays on Tuesday night are a list of meetings held by David Cameron with outsiders, which would show any official (though not necessarily social) contacts with News International chiefs or Mr Murdoch himself.

A list of the VIPs invited to dine at Chequers is also due, along with a record of gifts given to the Prime Minister and cabinet members over the past year.  Details of ministerial travel and the bills run up for flights and hotels are also due.

All these documents, which are compiled by the Cabinet Office and No 10, are usually published by written ministerial statements, which means they must come out on Monday or Tuesday because the Commons won't sit again until September.

However, ESP has learned that they are not on the draft Order Paper for Monday indicating that all are currently scheduled to pour out in an avalanche of paperwork on Tuesday afternoon when MPs and journalists are looking the other way.

There's nothing new in this. There are nearly always some serious policy announcements concealed among dozens of written ministerial statements that splurge out on the last day of term.

But we all remember how outraged the Tories and Lib Dems were when former Labour spin doctor wrote on 9/11: "This is now a good day to bury bad news."  Perhaps they could ease our suspicions by finding a way of to spread publication over several days during the recess.


Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter: @JoeMurphyLondon



14 July 2011 4:08 PM

Lib-Dem spin doctor dilemma

Among the many strands of the incredibly fast-moving phone hacking scandal has been a focus on journalists-turned-spinners.

Andy Coulson's News of the World past has been used by Labour to question David Cameron's judgment; the Tories have hit back by throwing muck at Tom Baldwin (see yesterday's PMQs as an example).

The squeaky-clean Lib-Dems have so far had no questions to answer, but are well aware of the perils. They will need maternity cover for Nick Clegg's press chief Lena Pietsch in the coming months, and any hopefuls can expect a VERY deep background check.

I understand the party may even rule out former journalists altogether as part of a safety-first strategy.

"We certainly don't want any of this coming our way," said my cautious source.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

12 July 2011 3:31 PM

Lunchtime List

All today's Evening Standard political stories in one place

Hacking scandal 'has damaged Met'
Just 173 phone hacking victims out of a possible 4,000 have been contacted so far by Scotland Yard, the officer in charge of the investigation admitted this afternoon.

We were left in tears by exposé of our son's illness, says Brown
Gordon Brown today told how he was left "in tears" when his baby son's secret illness was exposed to the world by Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

Murdoch is in danger of Sky failling in on his empire, warns Huhne
Rupert Murdoch's media empire could be broken up with the tycoon being forced to sell its stake in BSkyB, a Cabinet minister said today.

Official: Londoners pay highest prices in Britain
London is officially the most expensive place to live in Britain, with prices for goods and services an average 6.7 per cent higher than the rest of the UK.

Bills 'must rise to protect power supply'
Electricity bills will rise as a result of government plans to maintain Britain's power supply, Chris Huhne warned today.

High-speed rail work 'would hit Euston for up to 8 years'
Rush-hour services at Euston will be slashed and the station closed for days at a time if plans for high-speed rail go ahead, campaigners warned today.

Keith Vaz v Andy Hayman
Ground: Home Affairs Committee
Kickoff: 1.30pm
“It all sounds more like Clouseau than Columbo,” Hayman was told by Vaz, chairman of the committee that grilled Britain’s top policemen over the hacking scandal. Hayman was not so much grilled as minced and fried. The man who led original hacking probe, then left to work for News Int, tried to blarney his way through the awkward questions, but failed. “Why are you laughing?” he asked as MPs tittered at his gor-blimey performance. Vaz replied: “We are astonished, Mr Hayman, at the way you are answering our questions.” A car crash.
Score: Vaz 2, Hayman 0

11 July 2011 12:07 PM

Clegg reaches for the Sky

Nick Clegg took unilateral action with his call for Rupert Murdoch to abandon his bid for BSkyB, I understand.

The Deputy Prime Minister's plea for Murdoch to "do the decent thing" and reconsider the merger was apparently not discussed with David Cameron in advance.

"Nick was asked a question and he answered it," an aide told me.

"He was giving his own view on what the top man at News International should do."

The aide also scotched suggestions that this was part of a Government-orchestrated attempt to get Murdoch to drop the bid by using the Coalition as a convenient vehicle.

It would certainly be terribly convenient if NewsCorp dropped its bid for Sky - saving Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt any tough (and legally very complicated) decisions.

But the aide stressed the Lib-Dems' long history of independence from News International, adding: "We have got to be absolutely able - as we do - to say our own thing on this."

Muscular liberalism indeed.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

07 July 2011 4:20 PM

Laws rehab goes on hold . . .

This looked for a few hours like the day of David Laws' rehabilitation, just days after his suspension from the Commons finished.

On the Order Paper is a resolution appointing him to the Draft Financial Services Bill (Joint Committee) alongside heavyweights like Peter Lilley and Nick Brown.

But after it appeared in our "Match of Today" diary and on Paul Waugh's terrific blog, guess what? The resolution was mysteriously not moved.

My nark in the dungeons gloats: "They thought they could slip it through unnoticed but they got caught."  Another day.


Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter @JoeMurphyLondon



05 July 2011 1:50 PM

Going underground

Is Lib Dem Tessa Munt a fan of The Jam?

Today the feisty MP for Wells is launching a bid to stop electricity pylons being thrown up all over the countryside - suggesting cables should be going underground instead (and in tribute, here's Weller and Co in fine form).

Munt argues that the pylons - some as high as 152ft - are ugly, inefficient and a security risk because they are an easy target for terrorists.

Other utilities such as water and gas are buried, she says, so why string high voltage wires up in the sky?

On a day when phone hacking has returned with a vengeance, her 10 minute rule bill is unlikely to get much coverage. But it's an interesting talking point.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

04 July 2011 3:21 PM

Lunchtime List

All today's Evening Standard political stories on one place.

Taliban 'kidnap' British soldier
A massive air and ground search was under way this afternoon in Afghanistan to find a British soldier feared captured by Taliban fighters.

Plan to make pensioners pay new tax for care
A new tax on pensioners could be used to pay for reforms of social care.

Housing benefit cuts could leave schools with 'ghost classrooms'
Schools in central London could be left with "ghost classrooms" with no pupils because of a crackdown on housing benefit.

Cameron to be an Autocutie in bid to look less shifty on TV
David Cameron has started to use a prompter so he can maintain eye-contact with viewers during critical speeches where trust is a key issue.

Today's Evening Standard leaders

Oona King v the Bailiff
Ground: Ministry of Sound
Kickoff: July 18
How much is a “nice meal” in London?  Baroness King reckons on £150 for two. She reveals her expensive tastes in a letter selling tickets for a £100-a-head fundraiser being held to clear a £20,000 debt from her failed mayoral bid. A table of ten at the Ministry of Sound thrash costs a mere £75 per person which, she trills, is “more or less what you pay for any nice meal in London”. Oona’s former constituents in Bethnal Green & Bow may be surprised how jellied eels have gone up!
King 1, Bailiff 20,000

01 July 2011 1:12 PM

Olympics terror alert

We already knew that a terror suspect known as CD - banned from London and believed to have been plotting a Mumbai-style atrocity in Britain - could return to the capital due to the Government watering down its anti-terror laws.

Now, The Standard has revealed that there could be several more suspected terrorists, including some understood to be from East London, who could be allowed back before the Olympics next year  - if the Government does not amend its plans to replace control orders with terrorism prevention and investigation measures.

Currently, these reforms would remove the power to relocate terror suspects. This condition has been used in nine out of 12 current cases.

The Home Office is refusing to say how many could return to London.

But the Met's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Osborne has suggested it could be several, possibly at least five. Other sources also believe it could be five or six.

Mr Osborne, who is also the Association of Chief Police Officers' senior national coordinator for terrorism investigations, has told MPs: "The Olympics will be in a very challenging area in east London.

"A lot of people on control orders have come from the area initially, so moving them back will create additional challenges for us.

"It is difficult to say if they provide a greater threat than cells or groups yet to come to our notice or on which we have yet to receive intelligence."

Extra risk from the reforms - which include ditching relocation and relaxing curfews - could be "mitigated" by more surveillance and measures including bans on entering specific areas, he added.

But he would not say that MI5 and police forces can definitely eliminate any extra dangers.

Former Tory Home Secretary Lord Howard picked up on this point highlighting that the police were saying that extra surveillance and other security measures could mitigate but not eliminate any additional risk.

He also stressed that Home Secretary Theresa May is a member of a coalition - with the Liberal Democrats - and that the controversial policy had been developed following discussions in Government.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper is opposing ditching the relocation powers which have been backed by MI5, the High Court and even Ms May earlier this year.

So far Ms May is sticking with her new plans with the Home Office saying: "National security is the primary duty of government and we will not put the public at risk."

But inevitably the Government risks opening itself up to claims of putting the interest of the coalition ahead of national security.

Nicholas Cecil

30 June 2011 3:38 PM

Whips accused of another stitch-up

Are the whips at it again? Following claims of bribery and threatsagainst Mark Pritchard and his bid to ban circus animals, and strongarm tacticsover marriage tax breaks, Labour's Stella Creasy has come forward with accusations of dark dealing.

This time it is to do with tackling legal loan sharks. Walthamstow MP Creasy has an amendment to the Finance Bill (backed by the Labour front bench) to do just that, as part of her long-running battle to cap the cost of short-term credit (payday loans which charge interest rates which look like phone numbers).

She claims Government whips have ordered their MPs to oppose it - not because they don't like it, but so the Liberal Democrats can announce something similar at their autumn conference.

Creasy even raised the matter at business questions this morning, asking Leader of the House Sir George Young to "investigate a meeting I understand took place on Wednesday which agreed that the Government will vote against our amendment on Monday and so will delay action to relieve the misery caused by high cost credit purely so an announcement can be made at Lib Dem conference".

She went on: "We need to know when MPs vote on Monday they are not putting choreographing coalition dividing lines ahead of the interests of vulnerable consumers."

Sir George said he was "sure nothing underhand has taken place at all". I'm trying to get to the bottom of it.

Creasy is calling on MPs to "stick to their guns" and vote for the amendment regardless. After recent shows of defiance, it will be worth checking out the division list.

==== UPDATE ====
Creasy is being accused of spreading a "wild conspiracy theory" and "nonsense" by senior Lib Dems.  I've had this missive from their Cowley St HQ:

Hi Craig,
 I've just seen your blog on Stella Creasy's wild conspiracy theory. I can assure you it's utter nonsense. No such meeting took place and there are no plans to make any announcement on these lines at Lib Dem conference.



Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

29 June 2011 3:20 PM

Lib Dems seek to water down benefit crackdown

Liberal Democrats are flexing their muscles over the coalition's plans for an annual benefits cap of £26,000-a-year for families.

They are pushing the idea that child benefit, worth some £2,500-a-year for a family with three children, should be excluded from the overall cap.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes was meeting Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith today to discuss how to lessen the impact of the crackdown on benefits on families in London.

Mr Hughes is understood to be "sympathetic" to the proposal to exclude child benefit. He is concerned about how the overall benefit cap could hit London families given high rents in the capital.

He told The Standard: “There is certainly continuing concern across London about the link between the benefits cap and the high costs of housing.

“Ministers at the Department of Work and Pensions have been willing to listen and have already made some positive changes.

“Today will be an opportunity for elected representatives in London to put their case directly to ministers who I hope will take on board their concerns.”

Mr Duncan Smith is currently not minded to back the exemption of child benefit from the cap. But the campaigner on social justice is also keen to limit the disruption to families in the capital from the reforms. 

Nicholas Cecil





Match of Today - PMQs edition

David Cameron v Speaker Bercow
Ground: Prime Minister’s Questions
Kickoff: 12 noon

Ouch! If looks could kill, Bercow would be dead. It happened when he slapped down Cameron the middle of a glorious tease about Ed Miliband. “We’re very grateful,” dismissed the Speaker, oozing irony. Tories gasped, Labour MPs whooped, and the Prime Minister muttered under his breath, his face a portrait of suppressed rage.

Minutes later, the Speaker rebuked him for giving a long answer to Labour MP Clive Efford on policing: “Order! Prime Minister’s Questions is principally for backbenchers.” Asked about Bercow’s chairmanship, a No 10 aide said: “I think I will just leave you with ‘the look’.”

Score: Cameron , 0. Speaker 2.


Lib Dem slams "nasty" housing benefit cuts

No one doubts Iain Duncan Smith's personal mission to help the poorest in society.

But the Work and Pensions Secretary is facing a new Liberal Democrat revolt over his proposed crackdown on housing benefit.

Many Lib-Dems are not opposing the principle of his reforms based on the fact that people on benefit should not be getting a huge cheque from the taxpayer, sometimes more than £100,000-a-year, to live in homes out of the reach of many hard-working families.

They are concerned, though, about the practical impact of some of the current proposals, particularly on London.

"It's really, really pernicious, nasty stuff from this government and they're clearly Conservative-led policy changes," says Stephen Knight, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on Richmond-upon-Thames council.

"But in my view Liberal Democrat MPs and ministers have not done nearly enough to prevent these from coming through either."

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes is to meet Mr Duncan Smith today to push for the reforms to be tweaked so as London Mayor Boris Johnson says, they are introduced "humanely". Remember, he warned against "Kosovo-style social cleansing" in the capital by the welfare reforms.

Mr Hughes is particularly concerned about the overall £26,000-a-year benefit cap for families which can be reached for large households in the capital very quickly given high housing benefit bills.

Housing charity Shelter fuelled the rebellion today with a poll showing that two thirds of Conservative councillors and four out of five Lib Dems object to plans to limit rises in local housing allowance rates to CPI inflation from 2013 - rather than setting them in relation to local rent costs.

It also found nearly half of Lib Dems are concerned that housing benefit cuts may increase local homelessness.

Mr Duncan Smith has attacked "scare stories" that thousands of families will be forced from their homes by the benefit changes. He says such reports are causing unnecessary distress.

Blaming the current housing benefit situation on Labour, he adds: "A small number of people may have to move and we are providing local authorities an additional £190 million over the next four years to smooth the transition.

"Instead of complaining, responsible councils should be working to effectively implement these policies, and recognise that we are trying to get people off benefits and into work, and drive the cost of the benefits bill to taxpayers down."

MPs in London will hope that Mr Duncan Smith is right. His criticism of some of the reports of tens of thousands of people being forced to move because of the welfare shake-up may be valid.

Harder to dismiss, though, is an internal report by Tory-led Westminster council which showed that up to 43 per cent of primary school children in Maida Vale may have to move. Even if this is a worst case scenario, it is still alarming. 

Nicholas Cecil