Today's Conservative Parliamentary Party awayday takes place at a mystery location in Oxfordshire - indeed and to be more specific, in David Cameron's constituency, I am told. Downing Street is presenting it as a chance for the Prime Minister to "listen to the views and concerns of Conservative MPs". Predictably, Cameron will address the gathering. Almost as predictably, so will Lynton Crosby. Break-out sessions on policy will be led by George Osborne, Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove.
By Paul Goodman
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A very senior Downing Street insider told me earlier this week that it, CCHQ, Conservative MPs and the media had underestimated the Adam Afriyie operation when news broke of his leadership ambitions: "We all did," he said. Today's news that Afriyie has hired Phil Hall, a former News of the World editor, to provide media advice confirms this. The self-made millionaire MP for Windsor isn't short of a bob or two, and is in a position to finance a big push. Afriyie has his supporters at Westminster. Bill Wiggin and Jonathan Djanogly seem to be well and truly signed up to Campaign Afriyie, and there is a circle of admirers that includes Mark Field and Patrick Mercer. But the dispositions of Tory MPs are notoriously tricky to read. I take claims of 40 signed-up backers with a pinch or two of salt.
What Afriyie has written and said so far show him as what he is - a successful businessman with straightforward Conservative views on how to revive the economy: higher tax thresholds, employers' NIC cuts, lower corporation tax, capital gains tax exceptions (though I would drop or downplay all the paperclips stuff were I him). The party undoubtedly needs more people with business experience in high places, and many of his ideas are attractive. His piece on this site earlier this week showed him taking a view on legislation for an EU referendum before 2015. I don't see him as a future party leader, though he played an admirable role in trying to halt the horrors of IPSA, and has provided a reliable shoulder for some of its victims to cry on. Downing Street and the Treasury will be watching his relations with them very closely.
In particular, claims that his back story would sway voters are wide of the mark - because there's no evidence that politicians' back stories make a big difference to voters: if it did, William Hague would have won in 2001. But what Afriyie's campaigning has done is put him in play for a slice of the future if the party goes into opposition in 2015. We will doubtless hear more from him after next week's elections. The mood of Conservative MPs is never less than mutable - so the post-Baroness Thatcher death improvement in relations between the Prime Minister and his backbenchers should be kept in perspective - and if the local election results are calamitous it is hard to predict what will happen (though a challenge to the Prime Minister is extremely unlikely).
Some Afriyie supporters and diehard opponents of Cameron are saying that any challenge before next year's European elections are mistimed - since UKIP will do very well, whoever leads the party - and that the time for change is after they've taken place. We will see.
By Peter Hoskin
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With the Budget less than a couple of weeks away, I thought it would be a good time to collect some of the recommendations being put to George Osborne by Tory parliamentarians. Of course, the parliamentarians listed below may want other measures too – and there may be other parliamentarians who want what they want – but I’ve tried to go with the most prominent examples from the past few weeks. If you think I’ve missed anyone off, please do shout out in the comments section, or email me on pete @ conservativehome.com (without the spaces).
Robert Halfon MP: The reinstatement of the 10p tax rate
Robert explained how and why he wants the 10p rate of income tax reinstated in a recent article for ConservativeHome. Here’s a snippet:
“When Labour brought in the 50p income tax-rate, it cost HMRC something like £7 billion pounds overnight, as people changed their behaviour to avoid the new tax. This year, the Coalition will cut that 50p income tax-rate down to 45p, because this is expected to raise more money from the rich, not less. The message of the campaign at CutTaxTo10p.com — or, alternatively GreatGordonBrownRepealBill.com — is that we should use every extra penny raised from this to restore the 10p basic rate of income tax, to help lower earners. Added to the Universal Credit, this will help stop disincentives to employment, and to ensure that work always pays.”
He also discussed the policy on the Daily Politics today.
By Tim Montgomerie
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On ConHome Adam Afryie's Eastleigh reflection urged a focus on measures to boost economic growth. Read it here.
The best contribution I've seen so far came from Gavin Barwell. He urged a focus on rebuilding our ground operation and focusing on so-called pavement politics. Paul Goodman has also worried today about the decline of our grassroots strength.
Here's a collection of what some other Tory MPs have been saying in reaction to the Eastleigh by-election:
Eleanor Laing warned David Cameron against alienating more traditionalist supporters: “Loyalty is a two-way thing and the leadership of the Conservative Party asks for loyalty from our supporters but those supporters don’t feel that they’re getting loyalty back.” She continued: "In my own constituency, on the doorsteps in Eastleigh and generally people I talk to – they actually feel hurt and they feel left out. They are told they are old-fashioned and they think they don't matter and what they stand for and what they believe in doesn't matter. Those people who for decades have put their faith in the Conservative party – the only way to take forward those issues people really care about is to have a truly Conservative government. To do that, the leadership of my party has to tune in better to the people who want to support it, who want loyalty and who now feel rather left out." Quoted in The Guardian.
Here's what some MPs have been saying on Twitter:
And I was glad to see some kind words from Claire Perry for Maria Hutchings:
I hope there'll be no briefing against a good lady.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Like Graham Brady I wasn't keen on the nature of some of the electioneering but the overall result of the 1922 elections was, as I blogged this morning, encouraging. I'm more worried about the outcome of the elections for the Backbench Business Committee.
The BBBC has been hugely successful. It has meant that the House of Commons has debated issues that wouldn't have been discussed if the two frontbenches had had their way. The most famous debates of this kind were on prisoner voting and, of course, the EU referendum motion (in which 81 Tory MPs rebelled). Other debates have included the war in Afghanistan, welfare of circus animals, contaminated blood products, metal theft, charging for Big Ben tours, assisted suicide and the Hillsborough stadium tragedy.
Their voting behaviour (see list within this post) may have been too anti-Coalition for their colleagues but central to making the BBBC a success were Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone. Sadly both were unsuccessful in yesterday's election and I fear the BBBC will be a little more tame from now on. Two changes orchestrated by the Whip's Office since the "81 rebellion" made them particularly vulnerable. One change, a few months ago, meant that the BBBC's members were no longer elected by the whole house but the Tory members by Tory backbench MPs only and Labour representatives by Labour backbench MPs etc. The second change was to allow ministerial aides (Parliamentary Private Secretaries) as well as full backbenchers to vote and these received instructions from Keith Simpson, bag carrier to William Hague to vote for change. I don't know what the margins were in the secret ballot but the two rule changes certainly contributed to the fact that the new Tory representatives exclude Messrs Bone and Hollobone. The successful candidates were David Amess, Bob Blackman, Jane Ellison and Marcus Jones.
By Matthew Barrett
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Of the Parliamentary groupings founded by MPs after the 2010 general election, the 2020 group is perhaps the least understood. Channel 4's Michael Crick and the FT (£) covered its launch during conference last year. Those two reports implied the 2020 group was a centre-left grouping pre-occupied with "countering the rise of the right". The 2020 is not about bashing the right. It's about upholding the ideas and optimism of the Cameron leadership era, and ensuring they can help inspire a majority Conservative government. In this profile, I will take a closer look at the 2020, its aims, role, and plans for the future.
Origins of the Group:
The 2020 was founded in Autumn 2011 by Greg Barker, the Minister of State for Climate Change, Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-upon-Avon), and George Freeman (Mid Norfolk), with Claire Perry (Devizes) joining soon after. It was launched at conference last year.
Members of the group (see below) are drawn from across the ideological spectrum (one member told me the 2020 tries to "reject the stale orthodoxies and dogmas of the old left versus right split in the Tory Party"), but members are united in wanting to develop conservatism and what the Party might look like in 2020. Founder George Freeman said: "The 2020 was set up as a forum to help the new Conservative generation define a modern progressive Conservatism for our times. What is the DNA that unites this diverse new generation? What are the long term social, economic, and technological changes that will shape our world? By tackling these and related questions we hope to help Conservatives define and dominate the radical centre ground of British politics."
Fellow founder Greg Barker explained another aspect of 2020's mission: "There's a strong strain of optimism that ran through the early Cameron message, and that message of change, hope and optimism, sometimes because of austerity, gets overshadowed, and we see ourselves as the guardians of that message".
By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday in the Commons, the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 was debated. The 2009 Act created IPSA, the body responsible for regulating the current expenses regime for MPs. Its workings are deeply resented by many MPs - some of whom dislike it in principle. Adam Afriyie, the Chair of the Members' Expenses Committee, led the debate, following the publication of a report into the workings of IPSA. The main motion of yesterday's debate was:
That this House approves the recommendations of the First Report from the Members’ Expenses Committee on the Operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009
By Jonathan Isaby
"That this House regrets the unnecessarily high costs and inadequacies of the systems introduced by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA); calls on the IPSA to introduce a simpler scheme of office expenses and Members’ allowances that cuts significantly the administrative costs, reduces the amount of time needed for administration by Members and their staff, does not disadvantage less well-off Members and those with family responsibilities, nor deter Members from seeking reimbursement of the costs of fulfilling their parliamentary duties; and resolves that if these objectives are not reflected in a new scheme set out by the IPSA in time for operation by 1 April 2011, the Leader of the House should make time available for the amendment of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 to do so."
The motion had been tabled by a cross-party group of MPs, but it fell to Conservative MP Adam Afriyie - who does not himself claim expenses - to move it, giving IPSA four months to change the way it handles MPs' expenses or face being reformed by new legislation.
Mr Afriyie said he wanted to highlight the way in which the current expenses system "unintentionally discriminates against MPs with family commitments and those who come from a less well-off background":
"The system seems almost designed to create a Parliament for the wealthy. If a Member does not have sufficient resources to subsidise themselves, they become ensnared in a vice-like grip designed to bring them into disrepute—they have to produce every single receipt for some sort of personal item. Wealthier Members or those with independent means, of course, can simply not claim. As I look around both sides of the Chamber, I know that probably not a single Member here has claimed everything that they are entitled to claim—first, through fear of the public and the media really having a go, or secondly, because it is too complicated and time-consuming to do so. We have to ask ourselves whether the public want such a system for their Parliament. The wealthy swan through, buy their way out of the system with no trouble at all and are treated as saints when they are nothing of the sort, and everyone else is stuck in the system."
"The current system causes inconvenience and makes things very difficult for Members with families and Members who are less well-off. It also causes problems, because Members are not making claims. Looking back at this year, and certainly over the past six months, I know that virtually every one of my colleagues—I have spoken to 350 MPs one-to-one—has not made the claims that they are entitled to make. That may be seen externally as a great success—“Look, IPSA has crushed the MPs, and they cost far less!”—but we all know that that is not the situation. We know that Members are borrowing from their parents, having to borrow cars from friends, and still sleeping on floors of offices, which they are not supposed to do, because they are not claiming what they rightfully should be able to claim. It is not a good situation.
"However, I am not moaning on behalf of existing MPs. I love all the MPs here, but I am not whingeing on their behalf. What I am concerned about is the functioning of Parliament for the next 100 years. Where will we be in 30 years’ time if we continue down this route where only the wealthy can serve? That is where we were before; I thought we had moved on. IPSA, I hope you are listening."
"The motion asks not for a system that involves looking into the individual lifestyle of every Member, but merely for a simplified system that recognises the variability in family arrangements. The motion asks not for a system that investigates the lifestyle, family arrangements and travelling habits of every MP, but for a simpler system that saves the taxpayer money, so that MPs can focus on the job at hand, whether or not they have a family."
"I am begging IPSA please to propose a scheme that sorts the problems out, and I hope that it will. It has the mandate of the House of Commons already, so it can do so. However, the motion states that if a scheme that can be put into operation by 1 April 2011 is not proposed, this place will act—not in our interests, but in the interests of our constituents and Parliament.
"I am now on the record as encouraging IPSA to come forward with a scheme, but we must be clear on timing. If a proposal is not forthcoming by, say, mid-January, it will be impossible to introduce a scheme before the beginning of the next financial year. Therefore, if the motion is carried, it is necessary for us to introduce a Bill or a statutory instrument or something, probably this side of Christmas, in case IPSA’s proposal is not the right one. Otherwise, we are trapped within the current system, and our constituents will suffer. The costs will be astronomically high for at least another year to a year and a half, and I fear that Members will begin to leave Parliament. The work of Parliament will continue to be impeded unless such changes are made."
"This is a sensitive issue and the public are understandably concerned. I am certain that tomorrow this debate will be reported as, “MPs whinge about their conditions and the independent body that controls them”, but that is not what the debate is about. The debate is about saving the taxpayer money and ensuring that MPs’ voices are heard and not hidden through fear of speaking out."
Other Conservative MPs contributing to the debate made a variety of points.
The Department for Innovation, Skills and Universities was up for questions yesterday.
Shadow Secretary of State David Willetts asked about the role of about further education in the recession:
"I want to ask the Secretary of State about something that I hope he will agree is very important in ensuring that people have training and skills in the recession, which is the role of further education colleges. What does he say to a college that had moved out of its old buildings having been promised capital for a rebuild, but will now find itself operating out of temporary classrooms because of his Department’s incompetence in its management of the capital programme? How does that contribute to investing in skills in a recession?
Mr. Denham: As the hon. Gentleman knows very well from my having made a written ministerial statement last Wednesday as promised, we will spend the £2.3 billion that we have been allocated in this spending review period on capital investment in FE colleges. That is in sharp contrast to the position 10 years ago and comes on top of many hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in recent years. His own constituency has benefited from no fewer than 11 different FE capital projects in recent years. He did not say anything about that, surprisingly.
The Learning and Skills Council informed me about 10 days ago that it had given approval in principle to another 79 colleges, with more in the pipeline. It is clear that we cannot fund all those in the next two years, which is why we have done two things. We have asked the LSC to consult the Association of Colleges and others on ways to prioritise those that are in the pipeline, to give colleges some certainty. Secondly, the LSC has agreed to my request that it appoint Sir Andrew Foster to provide a report to me on how this situation could have arisen.
Mr. Willetts: Havant college is actually one of the many colleges affected by the moratorium. We calculate, on the basis of the Secretary of State’s own statement, that 144 will be affected. He said that he had invited Sir Andrew Foster to explain to him what went wrong. Will he confirm the details in the LSC’s minutes, which we have obtained with a freedom of information request, that senior officials from his Department attended every meeting of the LSC when the capital moratorium was discussed, and that it was specifically concluded at the end of the meeting when the moratorium was first imposed that he should immediately be informed? Why is he now saying that he needs a review, given that his Department was kept in touch throughout this unfolding disaster?
Mr. Denham: The position is clear. Ministers were first alerted to a potential problem with the capital programme at the end of November—I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the date. We received the next information just before the December meeting, at which the decision was made not to approve any further colleges in detail. Ministers were not given the picture that I was able to put in the written ministerial statement last week until the week before last—I think, but I will give him the date—as a result of the review that we asked the LSC to conduct. The numbers of colleges that the hon. Gentleman has calculated that were promised approval in detail, and the numbers in the pipeline—that is significant, because not only colleges that have had approval in principle are waiting for funding clearance—did not become available to Ministers with any clarity until that date. We shared the information with the House within the most reasonable timetable possible—after the LSC met last week to consider which colleges could be approved and the shape of the rest of the programme."