By Peter Hoskin
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We don’t normally start ToryDiary posts by highlighting the words of a Labour frontbencher. That stuff’s generally reserved for LeftWatch. But there was a fairly striking moment in Harriet Harman’s Today Programme interview earlier – and it probably caught the ears of No.10, too.
It was her admission that Labour will review their policy on pensioner benefits ahead of the next election. Ed Miliband, you’ll remember, said last week that the current set-up, by which wealthy pensioners receive benefits such as Winter Fuel Allowance and free TV licences, “needs to be looked at” – before his party’s spokespeople swarmed out to reassure folk that no decisions had yet been made, that their leader didn’t like the idea of means-testing, etc, etc. But, listening to Mrs Harman, it seems as though something really is afoot. “You always have to look at everything,” is how she put it, “to make sure the provision is right for the income distribution at the time.”
As the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan suggests, there could be a strong dose of politics in Mrs Harman’s remarks. She’ll know that the Lib Dems are opposed to these universal benefits, and that – as Nick Clegg implied yesterday – it’s likely to be one of the sorest points of intra-Coalition discussion ahead of this summer’s Spending Review. Perhaps Labour are hoping to line up with the Lib Dems against the Tories, in this case.
By Tim Montgomerie
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So were the results good for Ed Miliband? He certainly won more council seats than Conservatives expected him to win. Labour certainly performed better than I expected. But are they an indication that Ed Miliband is heading to Number 10? Grant Shapps suggests no, tweeting: "Two years into the Labour govt Hague made a far more impressive 1,300 gains. EdM might note that William never actually became PM!" But Ed Miliband doesn't have to make anywhere near as much progress as Hague had to do. Hague started with 165 MPs. Miliband begins with 258. The Labour percentage of the vote has been boosted by the defection of two million or more ex-Lib Dem voters. These left-leaning voters will not quickly vote Yellow again after seeing Nick Clegg do a deal with the 'evil Tories'. Labour goes into the election with 34% to 36% locked up - not so far away from being the largest party.
And if Labour don't face such an uphill struggle as Hague, IDS, Howard or Cameron did, I'm not sure that the Coalition can look forward to gentler slopes itself. We may be in the mid-term of a parliament but the Government's work is not half-done. It's not close to being half-done. Only 15% of the austerity measures have bitten. The biggest and least pleasant welfare cuts are still to come. According to the Prime Minister we're not even halfway through the €urozone's crisis. The NHS reforms are still around the corner. The Coalition's rose garden moments are behind it.
Some big things could, of course, get better. Growth might resume. Inflation might subside. The boundary review, a focus on defeating Lib Dem MPs and a reunification of the Eurosceptic vote might all happen. It may also be the case that in difficult times voters will prefer George Osborne and David Cameron over Ed Balls and Ed Miliband as economic managers (they do at the moment by 36% to 28%). My overall sense remains that we need a game-changer to win the next election, however, and that, while Ed Miliband may be a liability for his party, his party is back in power in Harlow, Southampton, Plymouth and Reading as well as recovering in Scotland and dominant again in Wales. As I've argued before, there is a distinction between underestimating Ed Miliband and underestimating Labour.
By Matthew Barrett
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It must be close to the next London mayoral election: Boris Johnson is distancing himself from the Government.
In this morning's papers, Boris has said two things of note. Firstly, he disassociated himself from this week's Budget, telling the Guardian:
"It may be some aspects of the budget are not going down very well. I am not convinced that I will be necessarily associated with those measures. It is not my blooming budget and it is not necessarily one that I would have written. There is plenty we can do in London to help the poorest and the needy."
This is heavily cushioned by caveats. He wouldn't "necessarily" have written it (but he might have done), and "aspects of the budget are not going down very well" (but that doesn't signal his disagreement with them). Nevertheless, the message is clear. The Guardian interview also says:
"he was also unapologetic about the way he campaigned for a cut in the 50p top rate of income tax in this week's budget... However, he did not defend George Osborne's so-called "granny tax", saying: "I am not the chancellor of the exchequer. I did not write the budget.""
By Tim Montgomerie
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Some interesting developments on tax policy this weekend. Three stand out.
(1) THE JUMP-START-THE-ECONOMY WITH TAX CUTS ARGUMENT
The one that has got the most attention is Ed Balls' call for a "temporary reversal of [Osborne's] VAT rise". Guido takes Ed Balls seriously and thinks the Shadow Chancellor is closer to the true Lawsonian/ Reaganite path than George Osborne - the man he dubs "Chancellor Zero". George Eaton reminds us that at least one Tory MP - David Ruffley agrees with Mr Balls. I don't. Increasing debt in the middle of a debt crisis remains very dangerous. (A) we could easily unsettle international investors by making unfunded tax cuts and (B), as Douglas Carswell blogs, "rather than a VAT cut bung, designed to make us spend money we do not have, we should cut taxes on productive activity; tax cuts on income, labour and on businesses." Fraser Nelson agrees with Douglas. My preference would be tax cuts funded by tougher cuts in spending. It was also the preference of Tory members when ConHome polled them before last year's party conference. John Redwood has recently been outlining the kind of cuts that could buy Mr Osborne some tax cutting wiggle room. Better-than-expected borrowing numbers might also give Osborne up to £6 billion of scope for tax relief.
By Matthew Barrett
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Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP, and Frank Field, a Labour MP, jointly tabled an amendment to be debated when Parliament returns this month. The amendment's aim is to break the stranglehold on abortion counselling of certain groups which Dorries and Field say have a financial conflict of interest in advising women seeking terminations, and open up counselling to independent counsellers.
Today's development in the story is that Downing Street will reportedly vote against the amendment. How does the Guardian title their article on the issue?
"Downing Street forces U-turn on Nadine Dorries abortion proposals"
By Tim Montgomerie
I wouldn't go as far as Matthew d'Ancona. In today's Sunday Telegraph he writes that Ed Miliband's victory has delivered David Cameron the next election. That's just silly. British politics is currently too fast-moving to make any such bold predictions but Ed Miliband's election certainly was good news for the Coalition. The talk of Downing Street not wanting David Miliband was true. Again and again Tory aides wanted Red Ed:
Aides to David Cameron were also delighted at the Liberal Democrat conference. Many journalists went to Liverpool hoping for lots of discontent. They found some but, as Andrew Sparrow reported in the best review of the conference, "there have been grumbles, but (this week) they have been inconsequential. In so far as you can say what the [Liberal Democrat] party as a whole thinks, it's broadly happy with the coalition, and expects it to last."
The third important development this week were signs that the Tory machine is coming back to life. Sayeeda Warsi hit the right notes yesterday evening in pointing to Ed Miliband's union links. Matt Hancock MP has emerged as George Osborne's frontman in attacking Ed Miliband's deficit denial. And Michael Fallon MP became the Conservative Party's media attack dog. Fallon's appointment is another sign that the Coalition is ready for combat and rebuilding relations with the neglected Right of the party.
All in all a very good week for the Tory leader.
* I'll be expanding on these ten points tomorrow.
On August 11, Chris Huhne and Sayeeda Warsi held a joint press conference attacking Labour. Both used the slogan: "One party made this mess. And our two parties will sort it out." Warsi said -
"Today is just the start of a summer of scrutiny into Labour's legacy. We are going to let ordinary people see Labour's total lack of respect for taxpayers' money. That's why as Conservative Party Chairman I'm releasing a video highlighting Labour's great failure. Chris and the Lib Dems will be doing their bit."
Almost exactly a month has passed. Summer has continued. The scrutiny has not. There've been no further joint press conferences attacking Labour; no branded campaign exposing its legacy of debt and waste - no focused drive fixing the blame for the coming spending scaleback where it belongs.
In the meantime, the Labour and media assault on the Government over Coulson and "cuts" is inventive and relentless. But there's been no effective counter-attack.
Why? There are three main reasons.
So what should be done?
By Jonathan Isaby
Towards the end of August, The Guardian claimed that David Cameron had said that of all the putative Labour leaders, David Miliband was the one he most feared:
David Miliband poses the greatest threat to the Conservative party of all the candidates in the Labour leadership contest, David Cameron has said in private remarks that could change the dynamic of the campaign just days before millions of ballot papers are posted.
To the likely delight of the older Miliband, who enters the final stages as the frontrunner, the prime minister has made it clear he believes the shadow foreign secretary stands the best chance of reaching out to middle Britain.
A well-placed source told the Guardian: "David Cameron said the candidate he hoped for was Ed Miliband, and the candidate he most feared was David Miliband."
Regardless of the veracity of that claim, it is one with which Conservative members agree, according to the latest ConHome survey of nearly 2,000 members.
As the pie chart and graph below show, the overwhelming majority believe the former Foreign Secretary poses the greatest threat to the Coalition, with nearly two thirds - 63.8% - agreeing that he poses a "considerable" or "massive" threat to the Conservative Party.
The equivalent figures for the other candidates were: Ed Miliband - 38.3%; Ed Balls - 21.5%; Andy Burnham - 13.7%; and Diane Abbott - 3.4%.
By Jonathan Isaby
Paul has already written here this morning about the IFS report and what it claims will be unfair impact of George Osborne's Budget on certain groups.
Fraser Nelson, meanwhile, has blogged about the Today interview with Treasury minister Mark Hoban (listen here) in which he avoided answering whether the Treasury had conducted an assessment of the impact of the Budget cuts on women, the disabled, ethnic minorities and other "vulnerable" groups.
Such an assessment was a requirement of Harriet Harman's Equality Act and, as such, Nelson concludes, is a devastating political landmine:
"Paragraph 32 of Harman's Act states that any individual is not prevented "from bringing judicial review proceedings against a public body which has not considered socio-economic disadvantage when taking decisions of a strategic nature". So if anyone makes cuts which Jo Blogger thinks hit kids with special needs, they can have the decision subject to a judicial review. And, perhaps, try to claim legal aid for so doing. The Treasury might claim this is baseless, but they may end up being sued nonetheless - it will be great fun for the unions to find out how far they can go.
"In this way, Labour transferred power from parliament (where it was about to lose power) to the courts (where the lefty judiciary reign supreme). Their calculation was that if they did this quietly enough, and in technicalities, the Cameroons would not wise up to it because of their aversion to detail. Cameron should have repealed the Equalities Act instantly."
An Equality Act sounds fluffy enough and Labour clearly calculated that it was the kind of law which, once enshrined, would be politically hard for a future Government to repeal on the grounds that it would create unfavourable headlines.
However, as Fraser Nelson says, there is something seriously wrong with a law that opens a government to judicial challenge over virtually anything that it does.
Whatever happened to the notion of democratic accountability by which politicians are held accountable for their decisions at the ballot box rather than through unelected judges in the courts?
These Cabinet ministers are counselling Lib Dem voters to back Labour in a bid to stop Conservatives from being elected in seats where the Lib Dems have no chance of winning, and effectively telling Labour voters to back the Lib Dems in seats where Labour is in third place - such as Norfolk North, as Ed Balls suggests.
But I wonder whether they may yet come to regret these last ditch interventions: Labour are attempting to play them down, and I don't doubt that Nick Clegg will not be thanking them for one moment.
For what they have done is to reinforce the Conservative message that if you want Gordon Brown and Labour out of office, then the only way to ensure that happens is to vote Conservatve.
The Lib Dems have been trying to claim that they offer change, but they have refused to rule out propping up a Labour administration; and now you have the message being conveyed by these senior members of Brown's adminstration that in Parliament Labour and the Lib Dems are interchangeable peas out of the same pod.
Incidentally, the very notion that tactical voting can only work against the Conservatives has now been blown out of the water.
On today's World at One programme on Radio 4, ex-Labour minister Lord Gilbert called on Labour voters to vote Conservative as a tactical move against the Lib Dems in seats where Labour is in third place because the Lib Dems would be irresponsible when it comes to "defence of the realm".
On the same programme a Lib Dem sympathiser in the Labour marginal of Tooting was interviewed saying that he would vote Conservative to oust the sitting Labour MP.
And when it comes to the political instincts of Lib Dem voters on the ground these days, it is also worth looking at the London mayoral election result from 2008. Of those who voted for Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick who used their second preference vote, they split virtually 50-50 between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson.