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


08 March 2012 11:14 AM

Tories give Warsi both barrels

By all accounts, last night's 1922 Committee meeting was a bruising experience for Baroness Warsi.

The Standard has been told that MP after MP lined up to attack her handling of MEP Roger Helmer's recent defection to Ukip - with one onlooker describing it as a "roasting".

The noble lady has never been popular among certain sections of the party, but this appeared to come from much wider than just the "usual suspects".

So savage was the mauling, and so badly-received was her response, that colleagues' mobile phones buzzed all night with reports from those present.

It sparked instant calls for her to be sacked as soon as possible and replaced with an MP - with Housing Minister Grant Shapps' name in the frame.

The Standard has been told among those who spoke out against Warsi's handling of the Helmer affair were Chris Heaton-Harris, Brian Binley, Sir Peter Tapsell, Nicky Morgan and Philip Hollobone.

Here's a flavour from some people inside the room.

One onlooker said: “She had a very very tough time. She got it with both barrels from MPs across the party.

“For the party chairman to get treated like that shows what people think of the party chairman.”

Another said: “She got a roasting, even from loyalists. I thought she was appalling. She has got no idea.

“I just thought she was out of her depth. I have never seen anything like it - other than the last time she was before the 1922. I genuinely think she is the worst chairman we have ever had."

And a third added: “It was from her perspective a car crash. There was a barrage of criticism.

“If had been an experienced Member of Parliament it would never have happened. This young lady thinks she knows everything and is the best thing to emerge in Parliament but she is not.”

To put it mildly: ouch.

Not everyone feels the same though. One MP said it did "nothing for morale" when colleagues attacked the party chairman, while a Conservative spokesman said Baroness Warsi had acted “entirely correctly and properly” over the Helmer situation.

They added: “The rules are perfectly clear. At the time Roger had not resigned, therefore there was no vacancy. Before there was a vacancy we could not select a candidate.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

01 February 2012 2:32 PM

Clearing up Parliament's graffiti

Are the days of Early Day Motions in Parliament limited?

On Monday MPs will debate whether to reform or abolish them following a long-running campaign by Tory MP Graham Evans - though there will be no decision taken.

He argues the time has come for serious change to EDMs, which MPs can put forward on virtually any topic but which almost never come up for debate or change the law. They cost around £290 each, or £1 million a year.

Evans says they have become a campaign tool for outside groups, often drafted by public affairs professionals, leading to clogged up postbags to little effect but at great cost.

Other MPs, led by Julian Lewis, argue they are a rare way to get lots of MPs speaking out on one topic and to get support for worthwhile causes.

Now Graham Allen, Labour chair of the political and constitutional reform committee, has put forward a middle way between scrapping them completely or keeping the status quo.

He wants EDMs to be renamed MPDs - MPs' Debates - and signed anonymously by backbench MPs only. At the end of every week the MPD with the most signatures would be granted a debate for the following week.

Allen has written to colleagues to garner support for his idea. And he said: “The EDM is devalued currency. It’s time to tear down this wall of political graffiti and rebuild a practical way for MPs to raise topical issues and hold government to account.”

Many will wish him well, though the glacial pace of change in Westminster suggests it could be a while before the graffiti is cleaned up.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

31 January 2012 2:37 PM

Riots put parenting under the spotlight

It seems David Lammy was ahead of the curve with his demands for smacking restrictions to be eased to prevent a repeat of the riots.

Those calls were followed by the Government's behaviour tsar, Charlie Taylor, criticising a lack of "basic" parenting such as preparing meals or putting children to bed. He used a horrifying example of a mother who said her eight-year-old son microwaves his own dinner and turns out his own lights once he is tired from playing on his X Box. The "depressingly familiar" cycle that follows sees bad behaviour, school exclusions and gang membership.

Tory MP Andrea Leadsom is using a Commons debate later to add her voice to the riots cause/cure debate. Making the case for early intervention, she argues parents should be taught how to love their children from a very young age to ensure their brains develop properly, equipping them with emotional resilience that can prevent a host of problems in later life.

"“We know from the shocking rioting and looting on our streets in August that there is a desperate need to address the broken elements within our society," she will say.

"Young people who cannot control their impulses, who are violent and who have no moral compass are like that for a reason."

Ms Leadsom will hail the work of Oxford Parent Infant Project which helps parents and children form loving bonds early, saying it has achieved "astonishing" results and should be rolled across the country.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

19 January 2012 2:14 PM

Prezza v Shapps - round three

On the day Lord Prescott accepted £40,000 for having his phone hacked, his feud with the Government has sparked into life again.

Prezza is still fuming that ministers are blaming him for lavish spending on Government credit cards - including casino and restaurant bills during a 2004 fact-finding trip to Australia.

The former deputy prime minister was cleared of wrongdoing in December, and it has also emerged that the card was cloned. So he tabled a parliamentary question to ask what the Government had done about it.

Simple, came the reply - £2,000 was recovered but none of it related to the spending in Sydney. "It is clear to ministers, from examining government procurement card spending across the department, that there was unnecessary expenditure," Baroness Hanham said.

Fellow DCLG minister Grant Shapps has also waded in. "Prezza still hasn't given a full and frank explanation outlining how his Australian junket represents value for money for the taxpayer," he said.

"This kinds of cavalier expenditure represents the very worst excesses that he oversaw when he was Deputy Prime Minister.

"We have clamped down on the systematic abuse of the Government Procurement card, calling time on Labour's culture of waste and ensuring families and pensioners around the country get value for money."

I look forward to the noble Lord's response.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

16 January 2012 2:08 PM

Boris slips into the '22 while George is away


Pure coincidence, obviously. But as the Chancellor begins his tour of the Far East, ESP learns that Boris will be slipping into his manor while he is away.

The Mayor has been invited to address the mighty 1922 Committee that represents Conservative backbenchers on Wednesday. Any suggestion that Boris will be parading his qualities as a potential leader are wide of the mark, the Mayor's allies insist. Rather, he will be seeking their support for the May mayoral elections, both as door-knockers and artillery in Parliament.

However, it would do no harm to Johnson's profile with newer MPs if he delivers a joke-strewn tub-thumper. More so if he can be tempted to make a few digs at the Lib Dems and the French. The Chancellor's spies will be watching closely.


Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter    @JoeMurphyLondon




20 December 2011 11:30 AM

A sad day for democracy

Last Friday saw Labour's Seema Malhotra take victory in the Feltham and Heston by-election.

I reported at the time how elections experts were shocked at the low turnout of just 28.7 per cent - even for a pre-Christmas by-election.

A deeper look at the results by constitutional expert and Oxford professor Vernon Bogdanor has revealed that of the 23,224 votes cast, almost half were postal votes.

This is his verdict: "It seems to me that when people are fed up with politics and politicians they won't vote. They do not feel that any politicians can really resolve their problems. They see no Margaret Thatcher in the wings - nor - thank goodness - any Mosley - which explains why UKIP and the BNP did not do better - though if Cameron had not vetoed the treaty, I suspect that UKIP would have overtaken the LibDems.
"The unemployed in the 1930s and 1980s, far from being radicalised, became apathetic and stayed at home.
"There were around 11,000 postal votes! So one does not even have to turn up. A sad day for democracy."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

14 December 2011 2:13 PM

"Tin ear" Bercow sparks fresh Tory row

It's been a while since we had some decent Tory anger against Speaker John Bercow, but with Christmas looming large today's PMQs delivered a gift.

Towards the end of the Cameron-Miliband exchanges, Bercow leapt to his feet to correct the PM for the use of "you". As noise raged, he turned to his right - towards the naughty corner - and said "I'm glad the Minister of State has returned from his travels and we wish him a Merry Christmas but in his case it should be a quiet one". (It's at 10m33s here).

Mr Speaker appeared to be aiming his comments at Health Minister Simon Burns - who famously branded Bercow a "stupid, sanctimonious dwarf" - whose colleagues leapt to his defence. Foreign Office Minister Keith Simpson gestured at Bercow to sit down, and could be seen mouthing "stupid man", while others patted Burns on the shoulder.

After the session, Simpson insisted Burns - a "serial offender" - wasn't to blame this time as he launched an attack on the Speaker.

"I do not have any time for the man. He has got a tin ear. He doesn't know when to intervene or not," he said.

"He comes out with these appalling cliches (about the noise), all this business about 'the public don't like it, I don't like it', but I'm pretty sure my 88-year-old mother is sitting in front of the TV screaming that she does like it.

"(Burns) would happily take the rap but for once it wasn't him."

With a neat jibe at Chris Huhne, he went on: "He picked on old Burnsy, who tends to be a serial offender, but in fact it wasn't Burns - it was one of the younger lads standing to Burns's left. I said to him, it's like a man who is always speeding up and down the M11 and then gets caught when he is not driving. That's life. It's much easier to pick on a man who is a serial offender."

It will be interesting to see whether Simpson's frank words get him in trouble with Bercow. He did admit: "Every time the Speaker interferes and leaps up and down he tends to bring out the worst in me."

Simpson joins a growing list of Tory MPs (former colleagues, let's not forget) who have spoken out against the Speaker. Mark Pritchard accused him of acting like "f***ing royalty", Claire Perry asked whether she had to grant him oral sex to get called in debates, and both Nadine Dorries and Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin have clashed with him.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

02 November 2011 11:35 AM

MPs seize on football racism claims

With John Terry and Luis Suarez embroiled in racism rows, MPs have seized on the opportunity to promote anti-discrimination drives.

Home affairs select committee chairman Keith Vaz has tabled an early day motion (weirdly not yet online), which has attracted the backing of a handful of MPs.

It reads: "That this House condemns any incidents of racism in sport; notes that there are currently two ongoing investigations into alleged incidents of racism by high-profile football players; commends the work of the Kick It Out campaign, Show Racism the Red Card and other charities which provide an inspiring service campaigning to ensure football is free from discrimination; and urges the Government to support these organisations in their excellent work."

The question is, will any MP be brave enough to speak out against the England captain as he faces a police probe?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

01 November 2011 1:36 PM

Foreign sniper discovered in Parliament

This is one of the best "small world" stories I've ever come across.

Bob Stewart, the former army commander who is now a Conservative MP, has struck up a friendship with a Commons chef who served as a sniper with Bosnian Muslim forces.


Sam Kaltak approached "Bosnia Bob" after recognising him in one of the MPs' tea rooms. It turned out Sam was a sniper around the same central Bosnian towns where the Colonel was leading women and children to safety in the early 1990s.

Originally from Slovenia, Mr Kaltak now wants to cook for British forces and is willing to go to Afghanistan to do so - with support from Colonel Stewart.

The MP doubts Mr Kaltak ever opened fire on British forces (they were, broadly speaking, on the same side) and is keen to stress he is no security threat. They have formed a bond over their shared experiences of the bitter conflict where temperatures dropped well below freezing.

It is a great example of something good coming from Europe's worst conflict since the Second World War.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Clarke: Squatters as bad as car thieves

Ken Clarke is seen by some Tory MPs as "soft" on crime but he clearly has little time for squatters.

They are no better than car thieves, the Justice Secretary told MPs debating the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which will make squatting a criminal offence.

More than 150 demonstrators sought to stage sit-down protests outside Parliament last night to protest against the criminalisation of squatting.

Around a dozen were arrested during clashes with the police in front of the Commons.

Inside, Justice Secretary Mr Clarke shot down claims that squatters have a right to take over empty properties.

“I have always found it difficult to see the difference between taking somebody’s car and taking somebody’s home,” he said.

“There is a need for a criminal offence.”

Nicholas Cecil


18 October 2011 12:40 PM

Sorry, Ed, Cameron won't oblige

Ed Miliband's hope of dragging the PM to the chamber probably won't be fulfilled. Even if John Bercow agrees to an urgent question on the Fox affair, Downing Street would rather send another minister to face the inevitable Labour cries of "Where's the Prime Minister?"

And the identity of the minister whose afternoon is at risk of being ruined?  Step forward Sir George Young, the sturdy baronet and Leader of the House who is even now at the ready for the call, ESP sources reveal.  A thoroughly nice and dependable bloke, Sir George, in the spirit of Downton's Lord Grantham.

 Stop Press:  Bercow has just indicated in the House he will accept an Urgent Question once the report has been published, which could mean just after Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow.  Stand by, Sir George


Joe Murphy



17 October 2011 2:16 PM

What Liam will do next

I am told that Liam Fox will continue his Atlantic Bridge project from the backbenches after Gus O'Donnell reports tomorrow.

The former Defence Secretary believes his scheme to forge closer links between British and American right wing politicians is too important to drop.

Friends believe he will be cleared by an official Whitehall inquiry tomorrow of having any personal financial interest in Mr Werritty’s activities.

Meanwhile, Dr Fox is “appalled” by the way his friend Adam Werritty has been “traduced” in media reporting of the controvers, say his friends.

This does not sound like a man who will hide away from the spotlight in months to come. Instead, I am getting a picture of a politician who admits mucking up the handling of his political interests but is of the view that those interests were - and are - right to pursue.

What does that mean for David Cameron?  Unless Gus O'Donnell's report has found serious wrongdoing, Dr Fox may find some sympathetic ears among Tory backbenchers.

Dr Fox resigned from Cabinet on Friday when he again apologised for having “blurred” the line between his ministerial duties and his personal interests.

(Incidentially, he is entitled to pocket £17,206 as severance pay following his resignation.)

I've spoken to sources who think Fox will be criticised for what one called running an “independent foreign policy” after the key findings of Sir Gus's report are published. There were periods when the former minister went off-radar to his own civil servants while he focussed on his international political agenda with Mr Werritty.



Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter     @JoeMurphyLondon




19 September 2011 11:38 AM

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

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 




09 September 2011 11:24 AM

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

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

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




27 July 2011 2:24 PM

Smartphone app 'too expensive' for Parliament

So much for the white heat of technology.

Plans for a smartphone app providing visitors to Parliament with tourist information have been shelved on cost grounds.

Lib-Dem MP John Thurso, speaking on behalf of the House of Commons Commission, said quotes from a procurement exercise were "too expensive" and that the project had been put on ice as a result.

He told Tory MP Priti Patel that more work would be done "in due course" to find a cost-effective solution.

Might I suggest an open, crowd-sourced competition? Surely the prestige of developing the official Parliamentary app would be a decent lure for a free solution?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

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



12 July 2011 7:26 AM

Laws rehab goes off the rails

Oh dear. The Coalition whips' attempts sneak through the rebahibilitation of David Laws hit a big snag last night.

For a second time, the Order Paper contained a resolution appointing him to the Draft Financial Services Bill (Joint Committee) alongside heavyweights like Peter Lilley and Nick Brown.

The first time, you may recall, their plan was shelved after this blog revealed what was going on. Then last night they tried again.

"Object!" cried a couple of well-prepared Labour voices from the darker corners of the chamber.

That scuppered the attempt to slip it through on the nod.  Now the Coalition may have to agree to a 90-minute debate on the cvommittee's membership followed by a formal vote.

Which with all the current preoccupation about "fit and proper" people leaves an open door for Opposition mischief over Mr Laws' expenses.


Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter @JoeMurphyLondon



06 July 2011 2:24 PM

Match of Today - PMQs edition

David Cameron v Ed Miliband

Ground: Prime Minister’s Questions

Kickoff: 12 noon

Miliband was on red hot form. He scored a rapid hat trick by calling for an inquiry, demanding that Rebekah Brooks quit, and urging a “breathing space” in the BSkyB takeover.

Cameron partially recovered with some heavyweight rhetoric about the “absolutely disgusting” allegations and by promising some inquiries should be in public.

But the man in the red shirt scored a fourth time by lambasting the “catastrophic error of judgement” of Andy Coulson and snarling: “He hasn’t shown leadership today.”

Score: Cameron, 2. Miliband 4


05 July 2011 4:44 PM

Volcanic cash

One of the best things about working in Westminster is the people you meet.

From MPs and peers to researchers, staff and fellow hacks, it resembles the old cliché about magistrates’ courts – all human life is here.

Some of them do extraordinary things for charity, and among them is my old Press Association colleague Joe Churcher.

Joe suffers from the genetic eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, which leads to a gradual loss of sight starting with tunnel vision and night blindness followed by difficulties with reading and seeing colours. Despite this, he and seven other sufferers are planning to trek 40 miles across Iceland’s volcanic interior to raise urgently-needed funds for research into a cure.

That’s spouting geysers, lava-filled chasms and the now infamous ash clouds they will have to deal with, to try and prevent future generations from suffering the same problems. The mission, which starts on July 16, is nicknamed Volcanic Cash.

You can sponsor Joe here or find out more about RP – which affects 20,000 people in the UK – here.

I’d like to wish him and the team good luck.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

The Missing US Ambassador at the feast for Ronald Reagan

Last night's Guildhall dinner in honour of Ronald Reagan's centenary was a truly glittering and warm occasion.

The British roasted lamb and the sunny Californian chardonnay evoked the close Anglo-US relationship of Reagan and Thatcher as much as the fine speeches by Condi Rice and William Hague.

But guests were left asking, where on earth was the American ambassador to London, Louis B Susman?

"Our ambassador should be here," said Lynn de Rothschild, the American entrepreneur who is married to Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and was one of Hillary Clinton's key fundraisers in 2008 as well as a supporter of several Republican presidential candidates. "This was an historic dinner to mark Reagan's centenary and to celebrate him as the man who ended the Cold War. What could not be more important?

"Why is our ambassador not here on Independence Day? No excuse. How is it that America is not represented in this room by our ambassador? It is appalling that no representative of our government is in this room. This has the feel of petty partisanship."

Ambassador Susman is, of course, a long-standing Democrat fundraiser, nicknamed the vaccuum cleaner for his skill at sucking donations out of the wealthy.  And his efforts to fill Obama's campaign pockets was said by many to be his main qualification to come to London.

According to the US embassy spokesman: "Ambassador Susman was pleased to be invited to the dinner but was unable to attend."

He had however been at the unveiling of a statue of Reagan in Grosvenor Square earlier in the day, and hosted a generous breakfast for the entire VIP visiting party and the military band. So he cannot be accused of snubbing the Reagan centenary.

But he missed some cracking speeches and anecdotes. For more details see the Standard story here.

And where was he?  The embassy won't say.


Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter @JoeMurphyLondon



01 July 2011 3:30 PM

Queen has Andy by the purse strings

Here's a new twist to the historic reform of the Royal finances.

The Queen will in future pay directly from her Privy Purse the annual incomes of Royals like Prince Andrew.  It may be argued that it gives her even greater authority.

At present they get their money from Parliament in a cheque drawn on the Consolidated Fund.  In an odd arrangement, the Queen refunds some £1.3 million to the taxpayer from her own income.

From 2013, the statutary annuities will be abolished and the Queen will pay the family direct from the Privy Purse.  Crucially, although the Queen "intends to continue to make equivalent provision", there is nothing to stop her varying the arrangement if she wishes. (Source: Letter from the Keeper of the Privy Purse, here)

This is potentially important news.  Imagine what it means to the internal politics of the Royal Family . . .  If Prince Andrew did anything to upset his mum, she could cut him off. Of course, that won't happen but since Royals get married, get divorced and have children, just like the rest of us, there will be a need to vary their incomes occasionally. And when that happens, the sensible and dutiful woman who holds the purse strings will be in charge.

The sums involved are huge. The Duke of York currently receives £249,000, the Earl of Wessex £141,000, The Princess Royal £228,000, while the Duke of Gloucester, The Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra share £636,000.

The exception to the changes is the Duke of Edinburgh, whose £359,000 per year will continue to be paid by Parliament.  Perhaps they felt it would be undignified for him to be paid by his wife.  And, of course, Prince Charles, as Heir to the Throne has the independent wealth of the Duchy of Cornwall estates to support him.

The Queen is a superb leader of "The Firm". Anything that ties its junior members closer to her example is a good thing.


Joe Murphy



Football, the Oscar winner and Parliamentary privilege

Here's a strange one.

Glenda Jackson, the Oscar-winning actress turned Labour MP, has come out fighting against the Football Association because female MPs are banned from the House of Commons football team.

Not that 75-year-old Glenda wants to play, mind you. She is upset that colleagues (Tory MP Tracey Crouch being the most high-profile example) can't play because of their gender, claiming it is a "gross intrusion into the privileges" of the Commons.

Her argument, in this Early Day Motion, is that the privileges guarantee all MPs are equal regardless of gender. What she brilliantly describes as "lady Members" should therefore be allowed to play.

And Glenda has been pushing her point on the radio.

“For me, it’s another indication of what century those in charge of the FA seem to be living in. It could be 1811 instead of 2011,” she said.

Pushed on whether the FA ban, which stops mixed teams once girls reach 13, should be scrapped altogether, the Hampstead and Kilburn MP was a little nonplussed. Her "main concern" was the situation at Westminster.

She said: "You're taking me into an area about which I know very little. I must be entirely honest, I’m not a football fan, it’s not a game I watch. But when you have women, for example, on the front line in our armed services – when you have women in situations across the whole of our society where they are there because they are capable of proving that capability, it seems to me to be utterly absurd that this kind of embargo should still run."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

30 June 2011 2:48 PM

Osborne paves the way for a girl to be Heir to the Throne

George Osborne just made a historic announcement about the Royal finances.

His reforms, signalled first in his Budget a year ago, pave the way for a first-born daughter of Kate and William to be Heir to the Throne.

The heir is supported by £16 million a year revenues from the Duchy of Cornwall estate. At present the Duke is Prince Charles.  But a girl cannot become a duke, so Osborne is changing the rules.

“We propose to correct this anomaly by making clear that in future the revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall will go to the heir whether or not they are the Duke of Cornwall,” said the Chancellor.

On its own this does not abolish the rule of primogeniture, which means a first-born daughter of Kate and Wills would be superseded in the succession by a younger brother. But it shows that ministers are putting the finances in place for the day when the law of succession is brought into the modern age.

Other reforms include propoer scrutiny of the Royal finances for the first time and a real-terms cut in the Queen’s income over the next few years, reflecting the austere times.

Full audits of Royal spending will be undertaken by the National Audit Office.

Best of all, lifelong republican Margaret Hodge and her Public Accounts Committee will be empowered to summon the Keeper of the Privy Purse for questioning.

“This is a big historic extension of parliamentary scrutiny,” said the Chancellor whose reputation as a moderniser will be enhanced.

Joe Murphy






Expenses watchdog in "phone tapping" row

A "telephone tapping" row has erupted at Westminster over the new expenses watchdog keeping recordings of conversations with MPs for at least six years.

MPs have clashed repeatedly with IPSA officials over their expenses and now it appears that many of these conversations will be lying in an electronic archive for years to come.

I suspect some MPs would be left quite shamefaced if they ever made their way into the public arena.

Helen Jones, the Labour MP for Warrington North - who is not believed to be one of those MPs who has used colourful language with IPSA workers - has been probing the watchdog over its recording policy.

Scott Woolveridge, the acting chief executive of IPSA told her: "Telephone voice recordings are subject to IPSA's Information Management records retention and disposition schedules which specify the period for which they are held.

"The current policy states that electronic files, which cover telephone recordings, will be retained for a period of six years. When the agreed retention period expires, electronic files will be reviewed and either retained for a further period, if still required for business purposes, or destroyed."

IPSA's deputy director of operations, two team leaders of the information team and the head of assurance and review are authorised to listen to telephone voice recordings to "monitor quality standards and to identify training needs".

Mr Woolveridge adds: "Additionally, members of IPSA's senior management can request access to specific voice recordings if there is a business requirement for them to do so."

Ms Jones accepts phone calls should be retained but challenged the need to keep them for six years.

"Without an explanation, it does seem an extraordinary length of time," she says.

"It seems to me very odd to keep them for six years. It's another example of the vast bureaucracy that IPSA is creating."

IPSA states on its website that phone conversations may be recorded but its information management policy is under review - and the retention period may change, Mr Woolveridge adds.

Nicholas Cecil








29 June 2011 2:23 PM

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.


Whips behaving badly

Last night a Tory whip marched into the Tea Room and bellowed:“Well, guys, we would be going home earlier if it was not for the following people . . . ”

The whip then spat out the names of Conservative MPs backing last night's amendment to the Finance Bill in favour of married couples being allowed to share their tax free allowances.

A week after Mark Pritchard revealed how the whips tried bribery and threats to make him drop his motion for a circus animal ban, they were out in force again.

Fiona Bruce, the Congleton MP who tabled the amendment for a married couples tax break came under "a lot of pressure" from the heavies to withdraw it.

In the end she stepped aside ex-minister Edward Leigh, a rock hard Cornerstone Group founder, to take her place as proposer.

Moving the amendment, Leigh referred to the bullying whips in coded terms, telling the House:

“Whatever else has been going on in the background this afternoon -- I need not go into that - it was my duty to move it.”

He said many Christians and other supporters would have been baffled if the vote had not happened. “I was not prepared to let that happen.”

Such passion may seem odd for an amendment that stood no chance and was duly lost by 473 votes to 23 - a majority for the Government of 450.  But the rebels made a point and the issue remains a live one that will have to be dealt with during this parliament.

Meanwhile, the whips are said to be falling out with each other over the tactics of recent days, possibly spooked by finding their traditional cloak of anonymity slip from their shoulders in recent days.


UPDATE: Paul Waugh spotted a great new eurphemism in Edward Leigh's speech:  "Shufflings offstage".  Leigh said: "This was a solemn commitment. So when this new clause was promoted this afternoon there were all sorts of shufflings offstage [Waugh's italics] to try to prevent its debate."



Joe Murphy

28 June 2011 2:17 PM

Whistle while you work

MPs are braced for a rather late night as they debate the Budget-enacting Finance Bill.

The talk in Westminster is that a 3am finish is likely. While Commons debates are normally called to a finish at around 10pm (followed by votes), the guillotine doesn't apply to tax-and-spend measures (so-called "money bills") because they can't be amended in the Lords.

Labour have are using tonight's report stage to repeat calls for a temporary VAT cut, which Ed Balls argues will kick-start the economy. Meanwhile Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy is keeping up her campaign to end "legal loan sharking" by capping the costs of short-term credit.

Tory backbenchers are in on the action too, putting pressure on the PM to fulfil his pledge of recognising marriage in the tax system and calling for pensioner tax breaks on medical insurance to be brought back. (Labour's David Hanson, by the way, has attacked both as "unfair tax cuts for the few".)

As the Press Association's Emily Ashton (@elashton) pointed out on Twitter, MPs sat until 4.34 the last time the Finance Bill was debated. And Ed Miliband's top Parliamentary aide Michael Dugher suggests it might be the same again.

He tweeted: "Finance Bill again today. Tory and Lib Dem MPs looking forward to a good dinner and an early night tonight will be whistling for it."

Expect sore heads and tired eyes tomorrow.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse 

27 June 2011 9:30 AM

Brian Haw is still making monkeys of the authorities

Brian Haw has had the last laugh.  A week after his death from cancer, there are more tents than ever in Parliament Square, as these pictures show.

His legacy is not just the continuing anti-war protest. It is also that protesters are still making a mockery of the authorities who tried so very hard to ban Haw's tent vigil.


Stretching from the corner of Whitehall (above) ...

... past Haw's original camp site, directly opposite the entrance to the Commons (below)

 ... to the corner with Millbank (above) ...

... all the way to the Mandela Statue oppposite Westminster Abbey (below)


Meanwhile, behind those high fences, council gardeners are planting perfect flowerbeds and manicuring the lawn, presumably to be unveiled when (or should that be if) the protesters are finally evicted by the courts.

I wouldn't bet on the authorities succeeding. After all, it's over five years since Parliament passed a law specifically to get rid of Haw and his followers - only for it to be declared an unlawful law (not a great advert for the skills of MPs and Govt. lawyers!).

Haw must be laughing his socks off.

Joe Murphy



24 June 2011 10:35 AM

Leona Lewis hails MPs on circus animals

Singer Leona Lewis has been praising MPs, including Hackney's Diane Abbott, for standing up to the Government to demand a ban on wild animals in circuses.

"Such incredible news today! thanks @hackneyabbott for supporting the circus animal ban! U have made the difference!" she tweeted.

‘We did it! We did it! I'm just so happy thank u all for supporting the ban our voices were heard."

Ms Abbott was among the MPs who lined up to defy the Government which preferred a licensing system rather than a ban.

But most plaudits were going to plucky Tory MP Mark Pritchard who refused to withdraw his motion calling for a ban despite intense pressure from the powers that be at Westminster.

"I had a call from the Prime Minister's office directly and I was told that unless I withdraw this motion, that the Prime Minister himself said he would look upon it very dimly indeed," he defiantly told MPs.

Nicholas Cecil



23 June 2011 12:14 PM

Lampard and Bleakley congratulated in Parliament

There's a touch of celebrity stardust among today's Early Day Motions (or Parliamentary graffiti, as they have been dubbed).

Northern Irish politicians Jim Shannon and Nigel Dodds (of the DUP) are paying tribute to one of their countrywomen and offering their congratulations that Christine Bleakley and Frank Lampard have got engaged.

In praise of the Daybreak presenter and Chelsea footballer, EDM 1971 reads:

That this House recognises the contribution that Christine Bleakley makes to the entertainment industry; further notes the contribution that Frank Lampard makes to the sports industry; offers congratulations to them both on the news of their recent engagement; and sends them both its warmest wishes for their future together.

Not exactly the most pressing issue on their plates, you'd have thought - particularly with violence flaring up on the streets of Northern Ireland again. But it's the Commons version of the "births, deaths and marriages" column in so many local papers.

Incidentally, EDMs cost an average of £290.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Lampard and Bleakley congratulated in Parliament

There's a touch of celebrity stardust among today's Early Day Motions (or Parliamentary graffiti, as they have been dubbed).

Northern Irish politicians Jim Shannon and Nigel Dodds (of the DUP) are paying tribute to one of their countrywomen and offering their congratulations that Christine Bleakley and Frank Lampard have got engaged.

In praise of the Daybreak presenter and Chelsea footballer, EDM 1971 reads:

That this House recognises the contribution that Christine Bleakley makes to the entertainment industry; further notes the contribution that Frank Lampard makes to the sports industry; offers congratulations to them both on the news of their recent engagement; and sends them both its warmest wishes for their future together.

Not exactly the most pressing issue on their plates, you'd have thought - particularly with violence flaring up on the streets of Northern Ireland again. But it's the Commons version of the "births, deaths and marriages" column in so many local papers.

Incidentally, EDMs cost an average of £290.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

22 June 2011 3:00 PM

Revealed: the MPs who had docs hand delivered

Earlier this year I wrote about a little-known £17,500 a year perk for MPs - the delivery of Commons documents straight to their doors.

The most unbelievable part of this, given that the papers are available free online, was that MPs living within a mile-and-a-half of Westminster were having them hand delivered by couriers and vote office staff.

I'm glad to say the practice has now been axed, saving £3,000, though they are still being posted out.

And I can now reveal which MPs were having the documents hand delivered just before Commons bosses called a halt.

According to an FOI response, they were: Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes; shadow ministers Shaun Woodward and Hilary Benn; Labour former ministers Michael Meacher and Sir Gerald Kaufman; Tory ex-ministers Tim Yeo and Christopher Chope; and Labour backbencher Paul Flynn.

The list also named 28 other MPs who were having papers delivered by post as at March 22 this year.

Here's the full list, including the ones having hand deliveries. Interestingly it includes some anti-waste campaigners...

Hugh Bayley    
Hilary Benn   
Christopher Chope  
Phillip Davies 
Nigel Dodds
Clive Efford
David Evennett  
Michael Fabricant
Caroline Flint
Paul Flynn
Paul Goggins
Mike Hancock
John Hayes
John Hemming
Kate Hoey
Simon Hughes
Sir Gerald Kaufman
Simon Kirby
David Lammy
Ian Lavery
Edward Leigh
Julian Lewis
John McDonnell
Michael Meacher
Andrew Mitchell
Paul Murphy
John Randall
John Robertson
Andrew Smith
Keith Vaz
Joan Walley
Tom Watson
Michael Weir
Hywel Williams 
Shaun Woodward
Tim Yeo

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Match of Today - PMQ edition

David Cameron v Ed Miliband
Ground: Prime Minister’s Questions
Kickoff: 12 noon

Miliband was crafty. He called Cameron “crass and high handed” for telling military leaders “I’ll do the talking”. Then he wrongfooted the PM on whether the DNA of suspected “rapists” should be kept or destroyed. Cameron racked his brain for details and was jeered for taking whispered lessons from  Theresa May. “At least we talk to each other,” quipped Cam, who counter-attacked over a shadow cabinet split on Ed Balls’s £51 billion VAT cut. Alas, it failed when Speaker Bercow brusquely silenced the out-of-order PM. Tories glowered at Bercow.

Score: Cameron, 1. Miliband 3.

20 June 2011 3:18 PM

Ken: "I agree with Boris"

In a battle of political heavyweights, Boris Johnson landed a haymaker on Ken Clarke today with a ferocious attack on his "soft" sentences policy to free offenders half way through their jail term if they plead guilty early.

"Soft is the perfect way to enjoy French cheese, but not how we should approach punishing criminals," declares the Mayor of London.

He also argued that prisoners should only be released once they had abandoned their criminal ways.

With Tory MPs rallying around Mr Johnson for standing up for "Conservative values", how would the Justice Secretary respond? Would bruiser Clarke hit back?

"Boris’ views chime exactly with mine," he says somewhat mischievously.

"Prisons should be places where we punish criminals, and then provide rehabilitation to stop them committing more crimes and creating new victims in the future."

But he side-stepped Mr Johnson's attack on his controversial plans for shorter sentences due to be unveiled this week

Nicholas Cecil

17 June 2011 9:17 AM

Lamont not "singing in the bath" over Greece

Lord Lamont, famed for "singing in the bath" after Britain crashed out of the ERM some twenty years ago, strikes an ominous note over the Greek economic crisis.

The former Chancellor says: "Make no mistake about it, this is a threat to the whole world economy. This could send shockwaves not through just the neighbouring countries of Greece but the whole European monetary system. France, Germany, Italy - they could all be affected."

The warning of another "Lehman Brothers-style" economic shock came as Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou ousted his finance minister George Papaconstantinou to try to restore confidence in his battered Government.

The situation is so serious that Tory peer Lord Lamont did not even afford himself a tad of "schadenfreude" over the plight in euroland.

He simply pointed out: "This is the problem, you have a currency without a Government that’s always been one of the arguments about the euro and it makes it difficult to get agreement and if you’re on the road of bailing out what is tended to happen is too little too late."

Nicholas Cecil

16 June 2011 2:40 PM

Clegg revenge on Huhne


Nick Clegg had a few choice words today on his arch-rival close Cabinet colleague Chris Huhne who is being investigated by police over claims he used his wife's name to avoid a driving ban.

"I really don't know any politician who is better at getting his points across," the Liberal Democrat leader joked at a lunch of journalists, before adding quietly: "That's got him back for Calamity Clegg".

He was referring to Mr Huhne's team seeking to tag him "Calamity" during the Lib-Dem leadership battle in 2007.

Mr Huhne denies the allegation that his now estranged wife took points on her licence to protect him.

The Deputy Prime Minister could also not resist a stinging attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband whose recent performances have left Labour MPs moaning into their beer. 

Contrasting Mr Miliband's woes to the claims about Manchester United star Ryan Giggs' alleged infidelity, he quipped: "One is a fading left winger who has had a bad time in the media . . . The other is Ryan Giggs."

 Nicholas Cecil

Update: Joe Murphy writes:  Cleggie's humour appeared to falter slightly when he saw that mayoral wannabe Lembit Opik was my guest.  I asked what qualities he would look for in a London mayoral candidate - and how the party could cut through againstr Boz and Ken ... On the first part, he mused dangerously "Welsh, Estonian ..?" before saying that it should be someone who knows London well and could campaign on those issues. He ignored the second part of the question. 

15 June 2011 3:19 PM

Match of Today - PMQ edition

Match of Today

David Cameron v Ed Miliband
Ground: Prime Minister’s Questions
Kickoff: 12 noon

Miliband could not afford another missed penalty - and shied away from aiming at the big issues like the NHS reforms that Cameron was briefed to the eyeballs on. Did the PM know that the welfare reforms would “make 7000 cancer patients worse off by as much as £94 a week?”  Cameron said there had been no change to terminally ill patients - which was not the question. Red Ed crowed: “He doesn’t know what’s in his own Bill!” Cameron got cross and accused him of “a smokescreen” to cover his party splits on the wider reform issues. “Apologise!” cried Labour MPs. More heat than illumination. But honour was maintained for Miliband.

Score:  Cameron 2. Miliband 2

10 June 2011 3:02 PM

Prescott's homes plan goes up in smoke

Every drought has a silver lining - or certainly for some communities.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman today slammed the brakes on John (now Lord) Prescott's plans for hundreds of thousands of new homes in the South East.

The South East being the driest part of England, it would not make sense to build 900,000 more homes a-la-Prezza until you could guarantee they would have adequate water supplies, she says.

"We need to put i before e. We need to make sure we have got the infrastructure before expansion," she adds.

With the East, and almost the South East, officially declared in a drought, many communities will welcome stopping the bulldozers revving up for new water-guzzling housing developments.

Delays will not help the housing crisis in the region but neither would homes where the taps run empty.

Nicholas Cecil






Cabinet minister Caroline Spelman

Thieves in the Commons


A GANG of thieves is feared to be roaming the Commons after nearly 30 computers were stolen in just five months.

MPs are so alarmed that they are calling for tighter security, including possibly more CCTV, after the theft of 25 laptops, two computers, an iPad and three mobile phones since the start of the year.

Thieves have also made off with a camcorder, sat-nav, set of keys, watch, camera, camcorder, wallet, coat, a charm and two amounts of cash.

The Metropolitan Police have been called in to snare the culprits.

One of the victims, Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Commons home affairs committee, says: "This should be one of the most secure buildings in the country so I’m astonished at these figures (on the number of thefts).

"I hope that they will now put a proper strategy in place which may have to include the installation of additional CCTV."

He added that the number of reception staff in some buildings appeared to have been cut which could make it easier for thieves to come and go unnoticed.

Thieves sneaked into his private office while he was at a Commons reception and stole his computer which contained confidential information. They also stole a laptop from the MP in the next door office.

Mark Field, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster whose constituency includes the Commons, said: "Given the amount of security at the Commons, with armed police, it seems incredible that people are getting access and walking out with computers and other personal items.

"Given the amount of stuff that has gone missing, it seems to be a highly organised gang responsible rather than just an opportunist."

A parliamentary spokesman said: "The Metropolitan Police are investigating a number of thefts in the Commons."

But will the thieves be caught? The odds are not high. Just five people have been prosecuted in the last five years for thefts on the parliamentary estate.




Nicholas Cecil

08 June 2011 2:36 PM

French pollution

While many Londoners cannot get enough of French food, culture and lifestyles, they will be less keen on pollution drifting across the Channel.

A leading environmental expert, Professor Frank Kelly, is warning that on some high pollution days in the capital, a considerable level of harmful particulates levels will have seeped into the South East from the Continent.

The King's College London academic estimates that between 3,000 to 5,000 people a year are dying early in the capital due to pollution - some having their life shortened by up to ten years.

Traffic pollution, particularly from diesel engines, is by far the biggest pollution killer in London, he says, with poor air from overseas adding to the public health impact when an easterly wind blows.

Failure to take decisive action to deal with such a big killer would normally spark uproar. But it's a silent scandal happening in our midst.

Nicholas Cecil






David Cameron v Ed Miliband
Ground: Prime Minister’s Questions
Kickoff: 12 noon

He stood at the penalty spot, an open goal before him, the crowd silent . . .  and Miliband blew it, the ball spinning harmlessly into the undergrowth.
“We read in the newspapers today,” began Labour’s leader, referring to the sentencing U-turn.  Cameron scoffed: “Do something more useful than just read the newspapers,”
Ed tried again: “He’s in a total mess.” Cameron quoted the shadow justice secretary, backing Ken Clarke’s plans. Miliband hurriedly turned to the NHS, earning jeers of “bandwagon jumping”. Labour MPs sagged, memories of Neil Kinnock and Westland in the air.

Score: Cameron 3.  Miliband 1

31 May 2011 12:01 PM

MPs to win gold for early summer break


MPs are set to head off for their summer break from Westminster next year at the earliest time for at least 30 years.

I understand that the Commons is due to rise by July 13 before tight road restrictions for the Olympics 2012 come into force in London.

No doubt Sir George Young, the wise Commons Leader who will have to approve the timetable, will be aware of the public backlash which could be sparked by MPs departing for the summer recess so early.

Many MPs stress that when they are away from Parliament they are working hard in their constituencies not sunning themselves for weeks on end in the South of France.

But some backbenchers, including veteran Labour MP David Winnick, are already calling for a vote on the House rising at its earliest since 1980.

Nicholas Cecil




25 May 2011 3:13 PM

The Met and gifts

There's a development in the phone hacking case.

Scotland Yard has agreed to change its rules on disclosiing hospitality and/or gifts to top officers. You can read the news story here or scroll down to the Met's letter below.

Under the old rules, board members had to disclose to a register kept in the Commissioner's office any treats or gifts offered. But (and it does seem rather daft) only the gift was published and not the donor's name. From now on we will know who is paying the lunch tab (me, on occasion, I should add!).

The significance is that this is another concession to critics who say Scotland Yard had too cosy a relationship with the Murdoch media empire. This extraordinary affair is still reverberating.

Credit goes to Labour's Tom Watson - my nomination for Backbencher of the Year for his high-risk camapign to break open the files of News International.

Watson has been chipping away for months at the Met over the failure of its original phone hacking investigation to nail any culprits other than former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and dodgy private eye Glen Mulcaire. Recently he turned the spotlight on whether Yates of the Yard - assisatant commissioner John Yates - should have declared a private lunch with ex NoW editor Neil Wallis. Yates did not break any rules, I stress, because it was a "private" event, but that begged the question of whether the rules were good enough.

Sources in the Met say Sir Paul Stephenson and his deputy have always decalred everything in full and this change just brings the rest of the board into line.

I should add, in fairness to my friends at the Met, that the convictions of Goodman/Mulcaire were seen as quite a success at the time. They drew a firm line in an area of the criminal law that had been terribly fuzzy. It is also fair to mention that the political pressure on the Met did not really build up until after Labour lost the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch and the general election of 2010.

Sir Paul may well be grilled about this - and the vexed question of when a private lunch should be made public - when the MPA next meets, tomorrow.  Here's the letter:

Joe MurphyMett letter pic
Met letter pic 2


23 May 2011 3:12 PM

Senior Tory in second rape row

If David Cameron was angry with Ken Clarke for denying that "rape is rape," he is likely to hit the roof when he hears what Tory MEP Roger Helmer has been saying.

The outspoken MEP has sparked anger by arguing on his blog that some "date rape" victims are partly responsible for their ordeal.

Tory MP Louise Bagshawe was appalled and led a storm of condemnation of his views. 

When I spoke to Mr Helmer, he was not backing down but also stressed he was not in any way seeking to justify rape.

Labour jumped on his words to claim it showed the "mask" on the real Tory party had slipped again. But shadow communities secretary Caroline Flint stopped short of calling for him to be sacked.

While Ed Miliband last week called for Ken Clarke to be axed over his comments on rape, Labour now appears to be pulling its punches.

Nicholas Cecil