I've no doubt that the pager message will have gone out to Conservative MPs to tweet - but the praise for the Home Secretary below will none the less be genuine.
By Paul Goodman
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The combination of Eastleigh and Italy have between them unleashed a tidal wave of commentary about the drawbacks of being governed by the professional politics. Consider Charles Moore's column in today's Daily Telegraph:
"Eastleigh brings out something which more and more voters feel. A quarter of a century ago, when people used to complain in pubs that “they’re all the same”, I used to argue back: it seemed to me patently false. Today, I stay quiet. Nigel Farage says that we have three social democrat parties now. There is a bit of truth in that, but I would put it differently. It is not so much that they all think the same thing. It is more that they are all the same sort of people. They all belong to a political elite whose attitudes and careers are pretty different from those of the rest of us."
Even the briefest inspection of David Cameron and Ed Miliband supports this view. Miliband has been a full-time political apparatchick since University. Cameron briefly had a job in television, but not a career: the post was acknowledged to be a waiting room for the Commons, even by his employers.
By Matthew Barrett
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The Daily Mail this morning reports on the 118 Conservative MPs who have written to constituents indicating their opposition to gay marriage proposals. The Mail says "Their opposition has been expressed in letters and emails sent to constituents who have contacted them with their own concerns", and points out that if these MPs voted against proposals, it would constitute the biggest Tory rebellion in modern times. However, Equalities Minister (and Secretary of State for Culture) Maria Miller pointed out on Twitter that since any vote on the issue would be a free vote, it would not technically be counted as a rebellion.
I have listed the MPs from the Mail's story below.
By Matthew Barrett
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Following on from the last few days' rolling blogs, I have below a final list of the MPs (and Baroness Warsi) appointed as Ministers for each department. I have put new appointments in bold.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Department for Communities and Local Government
By Tim Montgomerie
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Aidan Burley MP has got himself into trouble (again). This time for some sour tweets about the Olympics' Opening Ceremony:
There's a report in The Telegraph. Number 10 quickly distanced himself from Mr Burley's Tweets. "We do not agree with him," said a Downing Street source. Fellow Tory MP Gavin Barwell tweeted his own rebuttal. There's nothing left-wing about embracing diversity, said the member for Croydon Central.
Robert Halfon MP was positive throughout the evening (writing a blog entitled "Olymptastic") but he did object to Shami Chakrabati's casting as Olympic flag carrier "given her senior role in LSE: the Uni that sucked up to Gadaffi". I agree with Rob, why not an Afghan war vetaran instead?
Most Tory MPs were completely uncritical, however. Here's a selection:
By Tim Montgomerie
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David Cameron dispensing ice creams in Downing Street and with girl guides:
Stuart Andrew and friend waiting on the Commons Terrace for the pageant to pass by:
Rob Wilson with Sir John Madejski, Chairman of newly promoted Reading FC:
Matt Hancock and his predecessor Lord Risby (Richard Spring) planting a Jubilee Oak at Haverhill:
Send any more photographs to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Matthew Barrett
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On yesterday's Today programme, Justin Webb, introducing a section on the Lords, said "MPs are still on holiday but the House of Lords is sitting..."
Although he was later happy to acknowledge MPs are not, in fact, "on holiday", Webb set off a series of tweets from Tory MPs miffed at the fact they were being portrayed as taking too much time off. David Jones (Clwyd West) got the ball rolling
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) continued:
By Matthew Barrett
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My series profiling the backbench groups of Tory MPs has so far mainly featured groups founded or mostly composed of 2010 intake MPs. Last time, I looked at the Thatcherite No Turning Back group, founded in the 1980s. This week's group is somewhere between the two. The Cornerstone Group is the main group whose defining mission is to represent socially conservative Members of Parliament. The group was formed in 2005, and presented some challenges for David Cameron's leadership. In this profile, I'll see how the group is doing now.
Origins of the group
Cornerstone was founded by Edward Leigh and John Hayes, who still chair the group. Leigh has been the MP for Gainsborough since 1983, and is a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry, who was sacked for his opposition to Maastricht, and John Hayes, who has been the MP for South Holland and the Deepings since 1997, and the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning since 2010.
Cornerstone admired the work done during Iain Duncan Smith's time as leader to promote a more communitarian, Burkean conservatism, and wanted to ensure IDS' work on this front was carried on.
When the group launched formally in July 2005, it released a pamphlet, which criticised Michael Howard's election campaign for being too quiet about tax cuts, public service reform and family values. Strongly condemning the personality politics and liberalism of New Labour, Leigh wrote:
"We believe that these values must be stressed: tradition, nation, family, religious ethics, free enterprise ... Emulating New Labour both lacks authenticity and is unlikely to make us popular. We must seize the centre ground and pull it kicking and screaming towards us. That is the only way to demolish the foundations of the liberal establishment and demonstrate to the electorate the fundamental flaws on which it is based."
The group first exerted its influence during the 2005 leadership contest. A group of about twenty Cornerstone supporters interviewed David Cameron, David Davis and Liam Fox. Fox apparently put in the best performance, while David Davis was, reportedly, not able to take criticism well. This meeting, combined with David Davis' alienating stint as the Minister for Europe under Major, and Davis' reluctance to support Iain Duncan Smith's compassionate conservatism programme wholeheartedly, is thought to be why many Cornerstone supporters first voted for Fox, and then switched to Cameron.
During questions to the ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government yesterday, a torrent of Conservative MPs asked questions of Ian Austin - a junior minister and former aide to Gordon Brown - about Home Information Packs, demanding their abolition.
It's interesting to see the argument being deployed by Labour that abolishing the bureaucracy of Home Information Packs - as Conservatives are committed to do - will cost "thousands of jobs". Doubtless they will be deploying the same tactics when Conservatives talk about making cuts in the bloated public sector.
Here are the exchanges on the subject from yesterday afternoon:
David Amess: Whatever methodology the Department intends to use, is the Minister aware that Southend estate agents, without exception, believe that although HIPs may have been introduced with the best of intentions, in practice they have not worked out at all well and have damaged the housing market?
Ian Austin: I do not accept that at all. Despite a difficult housing market, evidence shows that HIPs actually speed up sales. I am not sure whether there is a branch of Connells estate agency in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but its survey of more than 37,000 transactions showed that sales with HIPs go through an average of seven days quicker.
Andrew Mackay: Why is the Minister in total denial? Nobody whatever thinks that HIPs work, and it would be sensible for the Government to knock them on the head before the election rather than have that albatross around their neck. For our part we are delighted that they are not doing so, but it is in his interests that he should.
Ian Austin: As always, I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's advice, but I can tell him that thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process and 13,000 people have invested thousands of pounds in training as energy assessors. The Opposition need to explain why they want to put all those jobs and businesses at risk. He needs to tell all the people in his constituency whose livelihoods depend on the process why the Opposition want to put them out of work.
Yesterday the House of Commons staged Welsh questions.
Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons Shailesh Vara and Wellingborough both asked about the treatment of Welsh and English residents in the other country's hospitals:
"The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wayne David): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on such matters. The discussions include the new cross-border protocol for health care services of Wales, which, I am pleased to say, has been agreed between the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government.
Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. He will be aware of the recent Welsh Affairs Committee report on cross-border health policy, to which he referred in his preliminary comments. He will also be aware that there should be clinical excellence for all those who wish to have medical treatment, as close as possible to their homes. Does he acknowledge that that would mean Welsh patients ending up having medical treatment in English hospitals? Will he do all that he can to urge the Welsh Health Minister to abandon her so-called in-country policy, which is causing so much distress to neurosurgery patients in Wales?
Mr. David: The hon. Gentleman is correct in referring to the Welsh Affairs Committee interim report on the provision of cross-border health services in Wales. We have considered that important report, and the Department of Health will respond to all its points in due course. It is important to recognise, however, that devolution is about addressing particular needs. The Welsh Assembly Government have clearly defined and articulated their policy, and we are seeing consistent and radical improvements in the health care of the people of Wales. Obviously, given the unique situation with regard to the Welsh-English border, a close working relationship is needed. I am absolutely confident that the protocol that is now in place and is being implemented will ensure effective co-operation and cross-border flow to the benefit of English and Welsh patients.
The House of Commons returned yesterday, and launched into questions to ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Kettering MP Philip Hollobone ensured that he won't get an invitation to join the front bench any time soon:
"Given that we spend far too much time in this country celebrating cultures other than our own, is it not time to start redressing the balance by creating a public holiday to celebrate St. George’s day?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he does in promoting Englishness and the flag of St. George. I would have to discuss with Government colleagues the idea of holding a public holiday to celebrate St. George’s day, but I hope that people will follow the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and celebrate St. George’s day, while also remembering that we will also be celebrating the birth of William Shakespeare."
Shadow DCMS Minister Tobias Ellwood asked about lapdancing clubs:
"As the Minister will be aware, the so-called designated premises supervisor is legally responsible for the conduct of any pub, club or lap-dancing establishment. However, there is no requirement for that supervisor to be present in his establishment at any time; he can verbally hand over responsibility to an untrained manager with no qualifications. Will the Minister examine whether that is the best way to ensure that pubs, clubs or lap-dancing operations are run properly? The feedback from local authorities with vibrant town centres is that it is not.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Designated door supervisors have been a force for good in the sense of working with establishments, the police and local authorities. I made an enjoyable visit in my Bradford constituency to police on the licensing route late one Friday night, to see at first hand how door supervisors were working. [ Interruption. ] No, lap dancing was not on at that venue that evening. We are trying to ensure that local authorities, the police and the industry are working together in trying to protect the public."
Clwyd West MP and Shadow Deputy Secretary of State for Wales David Jones (right) has condemned Lord Elis-Thomas, the presiding officer of the Welsh Assembly. Lord Elis-Thomas is a Plaid Cymru politician.
As we reported recently, David Cameron has said that if the Tories win power, he and his Welsh ministers would submit to questions from the Welsh Assembly. Mr Jones quotes Lord Elis-Thomas as saying:
"It’s our own First Minister who answers questions here and the relationship is between the UK Government and the Welsh Government. It isn’t between the Prime Minister and the Assembly.
That’s demeaning to our National Assembly and turns it into some kind of Grand Committee (of the House of Commons) equivalent…
The idea that the Prime Minister of the UK can breeze in for a Q&A isn’t allowed under our standing orders and I have no intention of changing it.
He is the first minister of another Government in terms of our constitution. I would think if those people were serious they would have looked at the constitution. It smacks a bit of paternal unionism.”
Mr Jones has responded:
"I say it with sadness, but it is now very clear that Lord Elis-Thomas, the presiding officer of the Welsh Assembly, is deliberately acting as a roadblock to the development of a more mature relationship between the Assembly and Westminster.
No statement could make it clearer that Lord Elis-Thomas, notwithstanding his position as presiding officer of the Assembly, is egregiously seeking to advance his personal political goal of an independent Wales and to distance the Assembly from Westminster. It is not, with respect, up to him to decide whether the Standing Orders should be changed; it is up to the Assembly as a whole.
Section 32 of the Government of Wales Act clearly contemplates the participation of ministers other than the Secretary of State in Assembly proceedings:
(3) The standing orders may make provision for-
(a) the participation of the Secretary of State for Wales in proceedings of any committee of the Assembly, or any sub-committee of any such committee, and
(b) the participation in any Assembly proceedings of other Ministers of the Crown and of persons serving in the department of the Secretary of State for Wales or of any other Minister of the Crown.
So all that is required for David Cameron to make his annual visit to the Assembly is a simple change in standing orders. Given that the majority of Assembly members represent unionist parties, which are supported by the majority of the Welsh people, it is inconceivable that they would display the sort of political immaturity that Lord Elis-Thomas has shown by his ill-tempered outburst.
I have no doubt that they would welcome David Cameron’s annual visit as a visible, tangible token of the maturing relationship between Westminster and Cardiff Bay.
And if Dafydd Elis-Thomas, as presiding officer, wants to stand in the way of that process, it is a very sad state of affairs indeed."
Surely Mr Jones is right. It is a strange thing indeed to call for less Prime Ministerial accountability.
It's nice that New Labour haven't scrapped the splendid title Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Yesterday saw questions to the Chancellor and the Cabinet Office.
Shadow Deputy Secretary of State for Wales David Jones asked about the impact of the recession on charity:
"The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Kevin Brennan): The Charity Commission recently published its second economic survey of charities, which showed that just over half of the charities surveyed are feeling the impact of the downturn. While 30 per cent. of those surveyed have seen their incomes decrease, 32 per cent. say that they have already taken steps to combat the impact of the downturn. The full results of the survey are available in the Library of the House.
Mr. Jones: As the Minister has indicated, the economic survey revealed that charities were feeling the impact of the downturn, but 20 per cent. of them reported that they were experiencing increasing demand for the services that they offer. Given the increasing importance of the third sector in delivering what are often core services, can he say what the Government are doing to help ensure that those services are maintained in the downturn?
Kevin Brennan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. Although the survey showed that 5 per cent. of charities reported that they had had to cut services or were holding off new services as a result of the downturn, only 2 per cent. reported that they had had to reduce staff during the recession. We have introduced our “Real Help Now” recession action plan to meet the demands of organisations in the third sector, as they have made it clear that they are worried about the increase in demand at a time when it is possible that their income will fall. The package includes a modernisation fund to help charities meet the challenges of the recession and a fund to help charities in the front line that are working in the most deprived areas, as well as schemes to increase social enterprise and volunteering."
Yesterday saw Foreign Office questions.
Shadow Deputy Secretary of State for Wales David Jones and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind both asked about Iran's nuclear ambitions:
"The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report of 19 February shows that Iran continues to refuse to suspend its proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities and has not granted the IAEA the access that it seeks as required by five UN Security Council resolutions. We, and the international community, will continue to press for Iran to fulfil its international obligations and restore confidence in its intentions.
Mr. Jones: Does the Secretary of State agree that while President Obama’s recent outreach to Iran is welcome, diplomatic overtures must be backed by a readiness on the part of the United States and the EU to impose such further sanctions as are necessary until such a time as Tehran can demonstrate to the unequivocal satisfaction of the UN inspectorate that it has abandoned its ambitions to develop a military nuclear capability?
David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his enunciation of the policy, which I think has support across the House. It is the so-called dual-track policy, which is that we should seek to engage with Iran, that we should make it clear that we have no quarrel with the Iranian people and that the choice of Government in Iran should be a matter for them. However, whatever the Government in Iran, they need to abide by their international responsibilities. If they refuse to do so, there are costs associated with that decision.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are responsibilities on the EU and the US, but the responsibilities go wider. The international coalition, which is right to fear an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, goes wider than the EU and the US. Russia, China and the Gulf states have responsibilities, too, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to join me in working to ensure that they are part of a global coalition against an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: With North Korea, it has proved useful to include its neighbours, Japan and South Korea, in the negotiations to discourage it from going down the nuclear weapons route. Should not Iran’s neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, be invited by the Security Council to join the negotiations over Iran, especially as the Iranians need to realise that those three countries might themselves go nuclear if Iran ends up as a nuclear weapons state?
David Miliband: Only up to a point. The multilateral negotiations are not being conducted under a UN framework—the E3 plus 3 is not a UN body, but it is recognised to have a global coalition behind it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have an important point, which was at the heart of the E3 plus 3 offer agreed under my chairmanship last May in London. It concerns what will happen in the future if Iran ceases its nuclear weapons programme or restores the confidence of the international community that it does not have a nuclear weapons programme. There are important regional political issues about Iran’s legitimate interests in the region, but no discussion of those issues can take place without the involvement of the countries that he has mentioned."
The Welsh Conservatives Conference took place at the weekend. A number of announcements were made, including a promise from David Cameron to submit to questions and answers every year at the Welsh Assembly, if he becomes Prime Minister.
Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan said that under a Tory government Welsh Office ministers would attend three question and answer sessions annually in Cardiff Bay. This would be additional to the statutory obligation to attend Assembly plenary sessions after the Queen's Speech.
Mrs Gillan added that more meetings of the House of Commons' Welsh Grand Committee should be held in Wales, and commented:
"To deliver the best for Wales there needs to be an open and continuing dialogue, not an annual arrangement."
One of her colleagues, Shadow Welsh Minister David Jones, announced that a Conservative government would set up a new committee of Welsh and English MPs (the latter being from constituencies close to or on the border) to monitor the impact of devolution in Wales and England. The committee would report to the Secretary of State for Wales.
Nick Bourne, Conservative leader in the Welsh Assembly, called for businesses with a rateable value of £10,000 or less to be taken out of business rates altogether, and tapered relief for businesses worth up to £15,000. Shadow Assembly Local Government Minister Darren Millar said that every pensioner household in Wales should receive a 30 per cent reduction in their council tax bills.