The week in politics

Juliette Gerstein looks back at what has been driving the political agenda in the past week.

Political overview

Foreign policy issues have continued to dominate the agenda this week as the EU agreed a new set of sanctions on Russia, and the conflict in Gaza continued, whilst Westminster began to shut down for the summer.

Tax returned to the headlines, after Whitehall sources suggested that, despite the increase in GDP, the tax take was not high enough to see new tax cuts in the Autumn Statement. The Prime Minister indicated that, whilst he broadly supported an increase to the threshold for the top rate of income tax, he could not promise to implement this at the current time. Increases in the tax take from stamp duty and inheritance tax have led to calls for an increase in the thresholds for both taxes. The Shadow Chancellor gave a speech arguing that wages have fallen under this Government more sharply than at any time since 1880, but faced questions about Labour’s plans for a tax on estates to pay for social care, or an increase in national insurance to pay for the NHS. Tim Bale dismissed suggestions from Oliver Letwin that the Tories could introduce a flat tax, saying it was too risky and too unpopular, whilst Chris Mason at the BBC suggested both Labour’s NHS plans and Letwin’s flat tax comments were merely the ‘musings’ of senior politicians, rather than planned policies.

Labour research suggested that improved UKIP polling at the General Election could help Labour, rather than taking seats equally from the two largest parties, whilst a survey showed that almost one third of Tory voters would prefer a coalition with UKIP to one with the Lib Dems if there was another hung Parliament, and that Lib Dem voters favoured a second Tory coalition over one with Labour. A separate ComRes poll put Labour on course to win the election, but emphasised that Miliband is not popular with voters. Damian McBride published further extracts from his book, attacking Ed Miliband’s policies as a ‘steaming pile of fudge’ and suggested that he is an ‘isolated’ and ‘paranoid’ leader. Commentators welcomed the opportunity to provide advice to the Labour Leader, with Janan Ganesh warning Miliband against being seen as a revolutionary with big ideas, suggesting that this was not what voters want as recovery begins to take hold. Hugo Rifkind said that Miliband’s image was not the issue, but that it’s the ideas that voters don’t like. Frank Dobson, having announced his plans to leave Parliament, attacked Miliband’s inner circle, and said that Labour need to ‘boil things down to a few simple, short, sharp concepts.

David Cameron announced further restrictions on migrants receiving benefits in the UK, including access to child benefit halved from six to three months unless there is a realistic prospect of employment. However, Labour claimed that they had been calling for tighter controls for eighteen months and accused the Government of failing to take a firm stance, whilst Nigel Farage accused the PM of trying to play catch up with public opinion, warning that the Government was powerless to stop migration because of European law. Matthew Norman attacked Cameron’s stance as ‘ugly,’ and questioned whether Cameron himself really supported it. The Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham used a speech to argue that voters deserve a real debate on the future of the NHS, and criticised the ‘pace’ and ‘scale’ of privatisation, but John McTernan said that Labour is fighting the wrong battle on the NHS. The Prime Minister welcomed a major project which will map the genetic codes of cancer sufferers and people with rare diseases. The project intends to make chemotherapy redundant by exploring targeted and personalised treatments. Cameron claimed the announcement would see the UK ‘lead the world in genetic research’.


The week in politics

Juliette Gerstein looks back at the week.

David Cameron’s continued opposition to Jean Claude Juncker’s Presidency of the European Commission has dominated the political agenda throughout the week. There were suggestions early on in the week that Cameron could use the Luxumbourg compromise, a mechanism that allows a member nation to veto a decision if it is perceived to be against the country’s national interests, but this was rejected as not being viable. Cameron’s negotiating tactics have attracted widespread comment this week. Philip Collins called Cameron ‘petulant’ and said he failed to answer the pertinent questions, and Chris Blackhurst said that Cameron’s stance was irresponsible and ‘wrong-headed’, but Fraser Nelson praised the Prime Minister as the only leader brave enough to stand up to Brussels. Jesse Norman added his voice of support, but former SpAd Dominic Cummings was unconvinced.

Cameron faced further criticism during the week after Andy Coulson was found guilty during the hacking trial. Although Cameron apologised for appointing Coulson as his Communications Director, Labour said that his apology was the ‘bare minimum’ and demanded he explain why he ignored all warnings about Coulson, including from Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Additionally, the judge in charge of the hacking trial attacked Cameron for commenting on the verdict when the trial had not fully concluded. Unsurprisingly, the story was splashed across the media this week. Daniel Finklestein said that it was unlikely to cut through to voters, Peter Oborne warned that it left Cameron exposed, and Joan Smith said that it just reinforced calls for a regulator.

Discussions of Ed Miliband’s leadership continued this week, with senior Labour MPs stepping forward to defend him. Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna MP dismissed suggestions that Ed Miliband should engage more with popular culture, arguing that it would ‘belittle politics’ and Rachel Reeves MP and Andy Burnham MP also supported him. Jon Cruddas MP, who is leading Labour’s policy review, argued that a change of leadership would not solve Labour’s problems, and said that those who thought it would were ‘deluding themselves’, but Steve Ricahards said that Miliband should learn from Dolly Parton. It has been reported that Ed Miliband will launch a campaign this summer to address concerns that the party is anti-business, and that he does not understand how to engage with business leaders.

Elsewhere, Chancellor George Osborne MP used a speech to suggest that a new high speed rail link running east to west would help regenerate cities in the north, but Simon Jenkins criticised the plan. Public Health Minister, Jane Ellison MP, was recorded saying that the Government no longer had much day to day control of the NHS, and Business Secretary Vince Cable MP will use the Small Business, Enterprise, and Employers Bill to crack down on the use of exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts.


The week in politics

Juliette Gerstein looks back at some of the main political debates this week

The Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, has come under further pressure this week, with ongoing criticism of his leadership from internal and external critics. Following Miliband’s endorsement of the Sun, and subsequent apology, there has been some criticism of his advisors and his media team. Damian McBride’s latest blog post questioned whether Miliband’s advisors were ready for the Election battle, but Rafael Behr suggested it may be Miliband himself who is the problem, and Danny Finklestein agreed. A YouGov poll for Prospect Magazine found that 60% of voters do not believe that Miliband is suitable to be Prime Minister. Miliband’s speech on Thursday outlining a new approach to welfare, restricting JobSeeker’s Allowance for young people without level 3 qualifications has failed to move the discussion on from personality to policy. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett said that the policy showed that Labour doesn’t care about young people, whilst Fraser Nelson suggested that Miliband doesn’t understand that most of the young people not in work need work placements not more qualifications. The Lib Dems were also under pressure after a poll showed that they are losing support to the Tories, Labour and UKIP, and could lose 12 to 15 seats to the Tories in 2015.

Cameron’s campaign to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming President of the European Commission has run into difficulty after the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was reported to have pushed for an earlier vote, in favour of Juncker. Cameron vowed to continue to oppose the move, although Sir John Major commented that it might not be all bad if Juncker was appointed, and business groups express concern that the focus was on personality and not policy. There were reports that Nick Clegg is considering changing his Party’s stance on an EU referendum following their poor performance in the local and European elections. Senior Lib Dem figures are reported to have told him to ‘bow to the inevitable’ and support a referendum. UKIP managed to form a group in the EU, giving them access to additional EU funding.

The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, warned that the Bank of England’s rules are suffocating business lending, and that a sudden rise in interest rates could risk the economic recovery. Nonetheless, there has been further speculation that rates could rise before Christmas, after the publication of this month’s MPC minutes suggest that the Committee is increasingly considering a rise. Larry Elliot, however, questioned if the minutes really shed any more light on the Bank’s plans, whilst Jeremy Warner said rates should rise soon.

The Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, published details of plans to halve the time it takes to switch energy companies. Dr Sarah Wollaston was elected as Chair of the Health Select Committee. Wollaston is an outspoken Tory MP who frequently rebels, and this is unlikely to be welcome news for the Whips or Party leadership, read our blog post on this here. The Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has published its report on flooding, criticising the Government for not spending more to prevent future flooding and the Education Select Committee suggested that extending school hours would help the most disadvantaged children. The Public Accounts Committee warned that Help to Buy poses a ‘medium and long term risk’ to public finances, and would pose a heavy administrative burden in future years. They also criticised criticised the implementation of the Government’s disability reforms as ‘nothing short of a fiasco’, and leaked memos seen by the BBC warned that Employment Support Allowance is jeopardising the welfare cap. Malcolm Turnbull suggested that the UK should take lessons from Australia on Government IT reforms, whilst Daniel Knowles argued that the Coalition’s welfare reforms have broadly failed.

The Week in Politics

Juliette Gerstein looks back at the week, and considers today’s election results.

The week’s political news was dominated by forecasts about Thursday’s local and European elections, and the media is now concentrating on the latest results. You can find our analysis on the results here. Local results are being released throughout the day, but European results will not be published until Sunday evening. UKIP have done well so far, on course to win over 100 seats with the mainstream parties likely to be disappointed with the results. However, the results in London were different with UKIP looking likely to have got just 10% of the vote share in the capital. Nonetheless, the party has done well in both Labour and Tory strongholds in the rest of the country, and some commentators are describing this as a ‘shockwave’. However, Anthony Well says that the results are maybe not as good as UKIP expected, with fewer councillors than they may have hoped.

Graham Stringer has spoken out about Labour’s campaign, arguing that it had been ‘unforgivably unprofessional’ in the run up to the election. Douglas Alexander, who is leading Labour’s election campaign, has defended the campaign saying that he did not feel that it had been ‘lacklustre’. He also added that he felt the rise of UKIP favoured Labour in marginal seats. Meanwhile, the Times reported that a senior Labour figure has said that Miliband ‘looks weird, sounds weird, is weird’, as the Labour leader continues to fight image problems, and Labour List, Atul Hatwal says that the problem is not UKIP support, but a Labour collapse. George Eaton argues that Miliband has set out clear policies, but now needs to fix his brand.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has dismissed suggestions from the right of the Party that the Tories should form a pact with UKIP, arguing instead that the question for the next election would be which party could best address the issues that UKIP raised. However, commentators note that the results risk threatening the recent calm in Tory Party divisions. The Lib Dem Leader, Nick Clegg, has said that he won’t step down, saying that the results were always going to be tough, and that there is general dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. The focus will quickly shift to next year’s General Election, and Phillip Collins has warned not to read too much into today’s results. Robin Lustig agrees that UKIP will not win any seats next year.

Elsewhere, minutes from the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee meeting in May suggest that they are considering an earlier than expected rise of interest rates as a result of continued positive economic figures and the surge in house prices. Lloyds announced a restriction in mortgage lending rules so that mortgages of over £500,000 can only be four times the borrower’s income, whilst Shelter warned that around 500,000 Britons face eviction, and 215,000 face repossession. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, gave a speech to the Police Federation’s annual conference that took a tough stance on reforms and finances, including a cut in Government funding; the Daily Mail described her speech as ‘war’ on the Federation. The Federation voted to accept the Government’s reforms. Sir Richard Lambert published further details of his new Banking Standards Review Council, which will seek to drive change in the industry. AstraZeneca’s shareholders have criticised the board for failing to fully examine Pfizer’s takeover bid – Nils Pratley asked what shareholders are really looking for.

The Government published the latest report from the Major Projects Authority, which reveals that the Universal Credit has had to undergo such a major design change, that it is now being judged as an entirely separate project. Some commentators suggested that the Government was trying to bury the news behind the election results. In other news, Boris Johnson argued that a ‘political fix’ will mean expansion at Gatwick airport, The Independent reported that a number of hospitals have had to ask for emergency government loans to pay for equipment and energy bills, and Labour said that any CMA market investigation of the energy industry should also look at the effectiveness of Ofgem.


Need to know: the week ahead and the week just gone

The Intelex team look back at highlights from the weekend and what’s ahead, with a particular focus on the count-down to the 2015 Election:

The story this weekend: The Mail on Sunday published details of Labour’s public health strategy based on leaked documents, revealing the Party’s plans on public health, fitness, and alcohol.  The document outlined plans including reducing sugar and salt content in products targeted at children and banning advertising before the 9pm watershed.  Other plans include a minimum alcohol price and preventing drinks companies from sponsoring sports, impeding supermarkets from selling sweets at checkouts, a target of encouraging half the population to take up regular exercise within the next decade, and the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes. However the article suggested that the Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, opposes this interventionist stance, and quoted an unnamed Labour MP arguing that the Party ‘need to show business we are on their side’.  Umunna last week addressed the Food and Drink Federation annual dinner, emphasising the Party’s support for the sector – and failing to mention any aspect of Labour’s plans to tackle obesity and unhealthy lifestyles.  Labour figures have largely stayed silent on social media about the leak.

More Labour this weekend: Ed Miliband suggested Labour would consider a form of renationalisation of the railways. The proposal may well be popular given rising train prices and the £4bn of annual subsidy the rail network receives. The proposals would see the Labour take over the franchises as they expire, thereby costing the Government nothing. However, there is rumoured to be a £325m short-fall in the rail funding which would probably prevent an immediate cut in ticket prices.

The story of the week ahead: This week marks a year to go until the 2015 General Election and commentators seem to agree on one thing at least: the outcome is uncertain, with the likely impact of UKIP on the outcome posing a major conundrum. As Patrick Wintour outlines in The Guardian, ‘In the short term, The Great Unknown is whether the European and local elections will turn out to be a frolic, and the serious business of politics, as senior Tory Ken Clarke put it last week, will thereafter return.’ In his column, Patrick Wintour looks at the packed schedule of political events coming up over the next year, but reflects that one thing is likely: Government will grind to a halt as the parties turn their attention to the election

The week in politics

Juliette Gerstein looks back at the week in politics and the media.

GDP figures published this week showed that the UK economy grew by just under 1% in the last quarter, the best result since 2010. The Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, told The House Magazine that he does not have a problem with people making a lot of money ‘so long as they pay their taxes and its good for our economy’.Figures from the Treasury showed that two thirds of Britain’s tax bill will be paid by the richest 16%. The Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Jon Cunliffe, has warned that the possibility of another housing bubble was the a key concern for the Bank.

UKIP have dominated headlines following a series of polls predicting that they will come first in the European elections. The UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage suggested that he may stand in the by-election that followed the resignation this week of Tory MP Patrick Mercer, but ultimately decided against saying that he wanted to focus on the EU elections. In The Independent, John Rentoul said that marked the start of the decline of UKIP. In The Times (£) Labour Peer and Miliband advisor Lord Glasman warned that Labour is too middle class and risks losing votes to UKIP. The Prime Minister stated that he would not take part in any future coalition if it meant a compromise on an in-out referendum, but Steve Richards said that if there was a Tory minority Government, ‘all hell would break loose’.

Ministers who were threatening to vote against the Bill, including Europe Minister David Lidington and Economic Secretary Andrea Leadsom, were conspicuous by their absence. Lidington’s ‘convenient’ trip to give a lecture in Estonia was picked up by Donald Macintyre in his Independent sketch on the HS2 vote. The Prime Minister also missed the vote, to the outrage of the Labour frontbench.

The proposed Pfizer buyout of AstraZenica continues to dominate, following an announcement from Pfizer that they were prepared to increase the price per share that they will pay. Lords Heseltine and Sainsbury have warned against the merger, and the Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, said that the merger is not driven by a desire to improve the UK pharmaceutical industry.

Labour announced that it will reform the schools system through the introduction of School Commissioners who would be responsible for a number of issues including raising standards and decisions on proposals for new schools. Ed Miliband also promised to cap rent increases in the private housing sector, as well as making three year tenancies standard and clamping down on high agency fees. While this was warmly welcomed on the left, in the Spectator, Policy Exchange’s Chris Walker outlined why the policy will do little to solve the UK’s housing crisis, and much of the coverage centred on the confusion of the involvement of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

The week in politics

Juliette Gerstein looks back at the week in politics and the media.

The Chancellor gave a speech this week emphasising that the Government’s changes to the tax system are the biggest for twenty years. He also spoke about the increased requirements for welfare claimants, and stated his desire to work towards full employment in the UK. This sparked extensive debate about what ‘full’ employment means, after the Treasury clarified that the aim was the highest employment rate in the UK. This FT blog post gave a helpful summary, whilst Ben Chu warned that Osborne was wrong to focus on quantity, not quality of jobs, and Michael Deacon wondered if Osborne was seeking to change the definition of the word ‘full’. The Prime Minister is touring around the UK to emphasise the Government’s progress in taking people out of income tax and to welcome job creation across the country. Vince Cable told the Independent that home ownership has become unaffordable for middle income families, responding to Conservative Housing Minister Kris Hopkins’ comments on Newsnight that rising house prices are a good thing. Ed Balls has continued to emphasise the rising cost of living, claiming that tax and benefit changes under the Coalition will leave households £974 a year worse off by the time of the next election.

The second televised debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage on Europe took place. Farage was broadly considered to have won, and the debate sparked extensive further commentary on the subject. In the Telegraph, Tim Stanley made clear his view that Farage won what was more like an American presidential debate, and that Farage is now the man to beat on Europe. Rafael Behr argued that Farage continues to run on the anti-establishment vote, although Ian Traynor pointed out that Farage’s portrayal of the EU, although populist, is hardly true to life. Ed Miliband accused the Prime Minister of being afraid to take part in televised debates before the election, but also confirmed that he does not believe UKIP’s Nigel Farrage should be invited to participate in the Leaders’ debates. Tim Montgomerie pointed out that, whoever wins the next General Election, their majority is likely to be small, leaving them relying on their backbenchers, warning against a Labour Government dependent on support from the left-wing of the Labour Party.

Maria Miller’s original expenses inquiry verdict has been overruled by the Commons Committee on Standards, which has called for her to pay back only £5,800 of the original £45,000 that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards had originally demanded she return. David Cameron has backed Miller but a number of papers have attacked the decision. The Telegraph called it a conspiracy to save Miller, whilst the Daily Mail described her apology as an insult to Parliament.

The former Health Minister, Lord Warner, co-wrote a Reform report that says that people should pay a £10 membership fee to access NHS services and £20 a night to stay in hospital, arguing that public funding can no longer provide enough money. Labour were quick to reject the idea, but Jackie Ashley says that the money for the health service needs to come from somewhere. The King’s Fund has called for the NHS and social care budgets to be merged to stop people falling between the gaps of the two systems. Labour’s John Healey and Tory MP Nick Herbert launched a joint project entitled GovernUp to make what they say are necessary changes to the civil service.