Wednesday, 14 July 2010

I am leaving the Western Morning News

The morning after a magnificent send-off from regional colleagues and friends seems as good a time as any to confirm my departure from the Western Morning News on Friday.

After almost four fantastic years of badger culling, DEFRA-bashing, unitary-yawning, tourism-talking, campervan-driving, expenses-exposing and, mostly, laughing, I am moving on to pastures new.

From next week I will have a complete change of pace and pressure covering politics at the Independent on Sunday. As someone has already noted, they could not be more different papers and probably don't share many readers but I'm looking forward to a new challenge.

Thank you to everyone who has taken time to read this blog or been remotely informed by the political coverage in the WMN in what has been a fascinating time for politics; nationally in general and in the Westcountry in particular.

As a Somerset boy I will always have fond memories of working for a paper I grew up knowing, covering a region I love.

But for now, I think it's time for a quiet cup of coffee and hope there isn't too much shouting at PMQs.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Tory MP warns deficit will last 31,000 years

All MPs are desperate to make the unimaginable figures on the national debt easier to understand.

Sarah Wollaston, new Tory MP for Totnes, has found a novel way. She told the Commons:

“All these very sad cases are unavoidable. It is because we have a national debt of £1 trillion. I was looking at what that means. If every pound were a second, that would be 31,546 years and we would all be sitting here for a very long time.”

Hmm. But if those pound coins were laid end to end will they reach the moon or buy a cake the size of Wales?

Only one way to find out…

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Lib Dem grassroots revolt at scrapping new school buildings

Another day, another test for the coalition. Michael Gove's announcement that he was stopping plans to rebuild or refurbish 16 Westcountry schools has (unsurprisingly) not gone down well.

MPs of all parties are making noises about "requesting meetings" and urging rethinks. Local councillors are less subtle. Des Hannon, a Lib Dem, county councillor who has just seen plans evaporate for his local school in Tiverton to be rebuilt, is pretty blunt in this letter he is sending to Mr Gove.

Dear Sir

I wrote to you on the 15th of May to explain why Tiverton High School’s BSF project deserved your support. I told you about the huge strides made at GCSE. I told you about the money already invested by Devon council tax payers and about crumbling buildings and rapidly growing student numbers. I got a reply utterly free of substance.

I listened to your speech on BSF today with incredulity. You have set back the educational hopes of our community and undermined the trust of our young people in government. I’m at a loss as to how your proper criticism of the ‘bureaucracy’ of BSF can justify ditching our scheme after we’ve jumped through every hoop. In May I told you that scrapping our project would be ‘a gross and unforgivable injustice to our children.’ You’ve done it anyway.

You are enthusiastic about creating ‘free schools.’ I fear you intend to squander the investment Tiverton needs on an expensive fad of interest only in cities. As a parent in a market town, serving a large rural area, ‘choice’ isn’t my priority. I just want our local school to have buildings fit for the students and teachers inside.

In the wake of your decision I’d be grateful for answers to two questions. How will you renew our building and make it big enough for soaring student numbers? Will you reverse the dire under funding which has seen Devon children short changed by Labour and Conservative governments for decades?

I look forward to the courtesy of a reasoned response. Our children deserve it.

Yours faithfully,

Cllr Des Hannon (Devon County Council, Tiverton East)

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Does Harriet know Labour have been wiped out in the Westcountry?

Harriet Harman has cooked up a real wheeze about getting Labour councillors to challenge Lib Dem MPs in their area over the support for the VAT rise to 20 per cent.

But as Lib Dem councillor Alex Folkes aka Lanson Boy points out, the one flaw in this plan is the distinct lack of Labour councillors in many parts of the country, including Devon and Cornwall.

In particualr, since the unitary council came in to force, Labour have no elected councillors on Cornwall Council, which means no-one to tackle Dan Rogerson, Steve Gilbert or Andrerw George, who has already made clear his unhappiness at the VAT rise.

It is a similar story for Torbay MP Adrian Sanders.

Might be back to the drawing board with that one, Harriet.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Did George Eustice watch a lot of Grange Hill?

So the AV referendum is on for May 5. According to sources speaking to just about every newspaper, TV channel and radio station.

What a surprise, it is going to be on the same day as local elections.

One of the key architects of the No campaign will be George Eustice, Tory MP for Camborne and Redruth and one-time spin doctor for David Cameron.

He was also Campaign Director of the anti-euro 'No Campaign’.

Clearly George took note when Zammo warned him: “Just say no.”

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Ben Bradshaw involved in a total farce

Oh alright, it’s not the Shadow Culture Secretary. Some while back I was catching up on the boxset of The Office, and noticed in the credits that one of the extras was called Ben Bradshaw.
I knew Exeter MP had worked at the BBC but did not think he had spent time at Wernham Hogg.

Now my Google alerts of Westcountry MPs have solved the problem.

This is Ben Bradshaw.

Or rather, it is Brian Stewart, who has just written and directed a farce - All in Vein – which gets its first performance at Abbey Theatre in St Albans shortly.

Brian’s stage name, as this local paper story points out, was Ben Bradshaw, and he appeared in most episodes of The Office.

Problem solved by a Google Alert.

Less easy to explain is why the email alert for Sarah Newton – new Tory MP for Truro and Falmouth – keeps throwing up a link to a story which describes her being “naked in a tubof marijuana”.

I assume it is not the honorable member, but I daren’t follow the link on work computers.

Silent Devon MP told minister does not have eyes in the back of his head

It is tough being a new MP. Neil Parish, the newly-elected Tory MP for Tiverton and Honiton, tried to make a contribution to a debate on energy efficiency yesterday.

He stood up not once, not twice, not three times but FOUR times in the hope that energy minister Greg Barker would allow him to intervene. Each time he was overlooked, in favour of Labour MPs.

The problem was he was stood by the minister in the Commons, as quiet as a mouse.

Speaker Bercow, who even when trying to be helpful risks sounding patronising, had to tell him to be “audible” in the hope of getting called.

This is the full exchange from Hansard:

Gregory Barker: Renewable heat is a renewable form of generation; it is not equivalent to energy efficiency. However, we are committed to an ambitious renewable heat agenda. We have a challenging renewable energy target and renewable heat will be a key part of that. We will be looking at how to move forward and at having the right incentives in place. Because we are aware of the concerns of businesses, such as the one the hon. Lady mentions in her constituency, we will be making an announcement on this as soon as possible.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con) rose-

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to his position. He has taken a long and careful interest in the matters for which he has responsibility, and I welcome his enthusiasm. So far in this debate, however, he has been quick to parry any questions that are not specifically about energy efficiency and has responded in a very constrained manner. If we are to have the debate that all of us would wish this afternoon, we need to be able to discuss the energy context in which it takes place and the broader financial measures that will be available to the industry in the future, in order to consider the wider aspects of the green deal the Minister has talked about.

Gregory Barker: Obviously, I take on board the hon. Gentleman's comments, and he is an expert in this field, but the key point I made at the beginning of my speech is that energy efficiency has always been the poor relation and that all too often people leap to discuss other, perhaps more sexy, matters such as heat pumps, the renewables heat incentive or renewable energy. While I want a full debate-and, of course, I will answer the hon. Gentleman's questions as best I can-I also want to focus the discussion on energy efficiency, because it is the most important and the best value-for-money consideration in terms of saving carbon.

Neil Parish rose-

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): Can the Minister confirm that the coalition parties will agree to implement the previous Government's commitment to ensure that all new homes are carbon-neutral by 2015?

Gregory Barker: That is an important target. We are committed to carbon neutrality, and I know that my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government are looking to see if there is any room for making the target more effective. Perhaps I may write to the hon. Gentleman with the very latest on that?

Neil Parish rose-

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): The Minister and I served together on the Environmental Audit Committee a few years ago. Will he comment on the future of the boiler scrappage scheme, a tremendous energy-efficiency measure that has been very successfully delivered, and will he look at the possibility of extending the scheme to cover gas fires? A company in my constituency produces very energy-efficient gas fires. If we were to support it, we would see real progress not only in boiler scrappage, but in the scrappage of other lower performing products such as wasteful gas fires.

Neil Parish rose-

Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman is right: the boiler scrappage scheme was highly effective. Although it was not a large scheme, it was both very good and very timely, and I will be closely examining whether we ought to take it further. I know that the hon. Gentleman has expertise on this, and if he would like to talk to me about it, I would be very grateful for the opportunity to pick his brains.

Mr Speaker: Order. May I interrupt the Minister to try to help a new Member? I very gently say to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) that whatever gifts and traits the Minister possesses, he does not have eyes in the back of his head, so if the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, it is not enough simply to stand; he must make himself audible.

Gregory Barker rose-

Neil Parish: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Gregory Barker: With pleasure.

Neil Parish: Thank you for your advice, Mr Speaker.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Lib Dem rebel, er... doesn't rebel

The Cornish ringleader of a Liberal Democrat revolt over the VAT hike abandoned his opposition and voted to back the move in the House of Commons.

St Ives MP Andrew George lahas defended his surprise decision, claiming he wanted to give a “fair wind” to the government but would continue to demand ministers do more to “justify” the rise to 20 per cent planned for January.

Despite defying his party leadership to table an amendment to the Finance Bill over the increase - which he claims will hit the poorest hardest - Mr George followed hundreds of Tories and Lib Dems to vote in favour of the move.

Just two Lib Dems – Bob Russell and Mike Hancock – joined Labour MPs to oppose the measure, which is expected to raise £13 billion-a-year.

Mr George has called for an inquiry into how the rise in VAT from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent will affect businesses, charities and households across the income spectrum.

He told MPs: "I believe that the impact assessment of the type that I have described is one that, reasonably, I think the Government should be bringing forward."

Mr George said "on balance I wish to give the Budget a fair wind at this stage", and welcomed measures including the rise in the personal tax allowance, a key Lib Dem policy which survived the coalition deal with the Tories.

It ain't over yet, is the gist of his message.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Lib Dem rebels say Treasury will accept Budget amendment. Treasury says: No

St Ives MP Andrew George’s amendment to the Finance Bill is sitting proudly on today’s order paper.

It demands a full impact assessment of the VAT rise, amid growing Lib Dem unease over the impact on the poorest.

Mr George has just put out a press release seeking to calm things down, in which he insists it is no big deal.
“My proposal is not tantamount to an earthquake along the fault line of the Coalition. The Coalition is different to the one party rule we have experienced in the past. It is a Coalition of two distinct parties with distinct policies and values. Those items, like budget measures which clearly cannot be debated between the parties prior to announcement, can, and should, be subject to an open debate prior to implementation. That is all my Parliamentary colleagues and I are doing.”
The release concludes with:
Mr George is expecting that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rt. Hon Danny Alexander MP, will accept his amendment and agree to the undertaking of a further impact assessment of the VAT rise prior to its implementation.
But a Treasury source insists this aint gonna happen. On a practical level, the way the Budget debate is structured means the Finance Bill cannot actually be amended and a vote cannot take place.

More importantly, though, Danny Alexander believes they basically met the demand for fully assessing the impact of the Budget measures, with an “unprecedented” amount of information released, both by the Treasury and the OBR.

This is in contrast, they suggest, to the 2007 Budget when Gordon Brown scrapped the 10p tax rate, and the information about the impact on the low paid had to be “dragged out of them”.

I suspect this will not be enough to quell the anger. Mr George and his three partners in crime are just the tip of a very large Lib Dem iceberg.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The West Lib Dem leading the "not nuclear" VAT rebellion

My revelation in yesterday's Western Morning News that Andrew George is seeking to amend the Finance Bill has been picked up by some of the nationals today and will likely dominate coverage of the Lib Dems this week.

Andrew, who rightly sees this as a matter of principle over fairness, is stressing that this is a "tiny storm in a very small teacup". Some of his colleagues might disagree.

Here is yesterday's story:

The coalition government is to face a direct challenge to its claim that the hike in VAT to 20 per cent will not hit the poorest hardest, in a revolt led by a Westcountry Liberal Democrat MP.

Andrew George has defied his party leadership to table an amendment to the Finance Bill which would implement George Osborne’s Emergency Budget.

The St Ives MP is the architect of a move to embarrass the government into reconsidering how the tax-raising, budget-cutting package will affect the worst off.

Lib Dem HQ was desperately trying to quell the rebellion, after deputy leader Simon Hughes suggested on Thursday that the party could “come forward with amendments” to make the Budget fairer.

In a statement yesterday the party insisted there were "no plans" to amend the Budget. It was claimed Mr Hughes had been referring to a "hypothetical situation".

But the Western Morning News can reveal that Mr George and three other Lib Dems have tabled an amendment to the Budget for Monday which, if debated, could open the door for other senior Lib Dems to criticise the VAT move.

The amendment demands the Government carry out “an assessment of the impact of the increases it proposes upon business, charities and households across the income and age groups”.

Such a report would have to be laid before the House of Commons for a full debate. The amendment is backed by Lib Dem firebrand Bob Russell who threatened within hours of Mr Osborne’s Budget to vote against it.

Mr George has stressed to colleagues that he is not seeking to trigger “nuclear war” in the party but believes the issue of fairness needs to be addressed.

Earlier this week he told the WMN that VAT was a “regressive tax” which “hit the poorest more than it hits the wealthiest”, despite bankers being to blame for the economic collapse.

“On that basis it didn’t chime with the stated purpose that those who got us into the doo-doos should pay the cost of getting us out.”

Critics of the VAT move say the low paid spend disproportionately more of their income on the duty than the wealthiest. It is especially embarrassing for the Lib Dems, who launched a poster campaign claiming the Tories were planning a VAT “tax bombshell” during the election.

A study by the South West Observatory earlier this week suggested 10,800 jobs could be lost in the region if VAT rose to 20 per cent.

Several senior Westcountry Lib Dems this week criticised the move, claiming old Tory ideology of punishing the poor had won through.

Lib Dem Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander has defended the rise from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent as “unavoidable”. He said the only alternative was still deeper spending cuts.

Labour has accused the Lib Dems of acting as “fig leaves” for a Budget that would hit the most vulnerable hardest.

But Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey said the state of the public finances left the Treasury with little choice.

“Nobody would want to take any of the measures taken in the Budget. The financial situation is worse even than we realised,” he told the WMN.

“Nobody in the election seemed to be acknowledging there was going to be a VAT rise. I would prefer there didn’t have to be. It is something that had to happen. It may not prove to be permanent.”

Mr George’s amendment is listed on the order paper for debate on Monday afternoon.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Westcountry Lib Dems are revolting

Simon Hughes has put the cat amongst the coalition pigeons today by promising to table amendments to the Budget, as pressure from Lib Dem MPs, activists and supporters grow.

Westcountry Lib Dems are particualrly unhappy about the Budget hike in VAT to 20 per cent which they campaigned so angrily against just weeks ago.

MPs in the region admit they are considering abstaining or voting against the rise to 20 per cent which they warn will “clobber” the poorest, as I reported in the WMN today.

St Ives Lib Dem MP Andrew George said he was “disappointed” with the VAT rise, due to come into effect in January.

“I can see how seductive it is because it does make a lot of money for the Treasury but I do think it is a regressive tax. It does, without question, hit the poorest more than it hits the wealthiest.

“On that basis it didn’t chime with the stated purpose that those who got us into the doo-doos should pay the cost of getting us out.

“Anything that is going to clobber those that didn’t put us into this mess is the wrong way to go about it.”
Alex Folkes, a Lib Dem on Cornwall Council, said the spectacle of the Lib Dems “going back on their word” on VAT was a “crying shame”

“Having taken a bit of time to digest the budget I can't get past the VAT hike and the message it sends out,” he wrote on his blog.

“Not only is VAT a hugely regressive form of taxation which is likely to hit the poorest hardest, but there is also the message it sends about our Government - both halves of it - that what they said before the election and what they are doing now don't match up.

“The Lib Dems campaigned on the basis of the Conservatives' 'VAT Bombshell' and I can't help thinking that today's decision is hugely regrettable.”
Karen Gillard, the defeated Lib Dem candidate in South East Cornwall, said:
“I understand why we had to get rid of Gordon Brown, but that does not mean we have to let the Conservative mantra and ideology get its way. I am very sad to see senior Lib Dems trying to justify penalising the poorest in society.”
Lib Dem Voice, a leading grassroots website, has been inundated with party members and supporters angered by the Budget, branding the VAT rise “a disgusting betrayal of values”.

One web user, toryboysnevergrowup, said:
“How different do you think the Budget would really have been if the Lib Dems had sold their souls?”
Another, Ian Ridley, said the “whacking great” VAT rise meant he was now “seriously considering” quitting the party. Terry Gilbert added that the move was “both inflationary and ethically disgraceful”.

Jonathan Underwood, who stood unsuccessfully for the Lib Dems in the Tiverton and Honiton seat, said it was clear before the election that VAT needed to rise.

“I wish all parties had been a bit more straightforward about the scale of the financial challenge facing the country.

“It is not exactly the Budget I would have wanted, but the Conservatives have got five times the number of seats.”

He added, though, that without the Lib Dems in government, a Tory Budget “would have been a lot worse”.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Minister confirms 'John' is a lady

I reproduce the following from Westminster Hall without comment:

Joan Ruddock: Last week the Minister talked about skills, and praised the chief executive officer of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, John Llewellyn.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): Jean Llewellyn.
Joan Ruddock: I am grateful for the Minister's advice. I shall call him Mr Llewellyn-I do not know him.
Charles Hendry: She is a lady.
Joan Ruddock: I accept entirely that I have made an error, but I obtained the information from a good source, so I blame that source and not myself. I accept that the chief executive officer is a woman.

MPs, the men in tights (and hacks) charged £500k more for Commons food and booze

Now this austerity business is really starting to bite.

The House of Commons Commission has just slipped out a press release announcing major savings, cutting £12 million from its budget this year - five per cent more than planned.

It will include scaling back programmes and projects and freezing all but essential recruitment.

Select committee jollies will feel the pinch, with travel budgets cut by £800,000.

But the thing exercising hacks this morning is a price hike in the bars, raising £500,000.

It will bring canteen charges "into line with benchmark workplace venues" and bar bills "into line with a competitively priced high street pub chain".

It's enough to drive a hard-pressed hack to drink.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Wurzels say Osborne scrapped Scrumpy tax hike fearing revolt by their fans

Tommy Banner, accordion player and zider drinker, is delighted to hear that George Osborne has abandoned Labour’s plan to increase duty on cider by 10 per cent above inflation.

He admitted the news came as a “surprise” not least because he had been playing in the garden with his grandchildren instead of watching the Brutal Budget.

He told me it was “magic news for the cider industry” while also being “good news” for pubs.

Asked why the coalition backed down, he added that the public outcry and Wurzel uproar which greeted Darling’s announcement in March was a warning:

“They were obviously frightened by the result they got last time. They didn’t want the government to be brought down. That’s the first step in the right direction for the working man by the Cameron government.”

Confirmed: Julia Goldsworthy becomes Treasury spin doctor

At the usual huddle of lobby hacks after the Budget there was a familiar face lurking with a pile of papers - Julia Goldsworthy, ex-Lib Dem MP for Falmouth and Camborne who lost her seat at the election.

Her political reincarnation comes as special advisor to Danny Alexander, as I blogged last week.

An interesting time to join the team, starting "unofficially" last week but only officially confirmed yesterday.

You read it here first, as they say.

Here we go - let the cutting begin

So after an incredible general election which put the economy centre stage, a remarkable coalition deal and then the early appetiser £6.2 billion cuts, we now come to the meat.

George Osborne will set out exactly what he plans to do to tackle the £155 billion deficit in three quarters of an hour.

I am told Labour's vindictive plan to hike tax on cider will be dealt with, along with measures to reverse a tax raid on holiday homes which put billions in the Westcountry's tourism industry at risk.

The Sun is reporting that Capital Gains Tax will rise to 28 per cent, which sounds a bit like trying to be higher than 18 but lower than 40 - pleasing neither Lib Dems nor right wing Tories.

I stuck my neck out yesterday and said I wasn't sure VAT would rise. The FT makes a similar prediction this morning. We will see.

Anyway, we'll get the full details in 45 minutes.

For now, here is what Mr Osborne has had to say first thing to whet our appetites:

“My budget is tough but it will be fair. This is an unavoidable Budget because of the mess we have to clear up.

“So the Coalition Government will take responsibility for balancing Britain's books within five years.

“We're going to do it fairly, protecting children and pensioners, and ensuring the richest contribute the most.

“And it means getting enterprise going, because it's businesses, not government, that will create the jobs of the future.”

Monday, 21 June 2010

Culture Secretary becomes paperboy delivering WMN

Jeremy Hunt had his first outing in the Commons as Culture Secretary this afternoon, teasing his opponent Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter, about their role reversal.

Hunt told Bradshaw his local newspapers were still be delivered to his old ministerial office, before throwing a copy of the Western Morning News across the Dispatch Box.

(On assumes he read the Westcountry’s favourite daily read first)

For his part Bradshaw had a decent comeback, saying Hunt’s tickets for the Royal Opera House for him and his wife were still being delivered to Bradshaw’s office.

Darling warns Osborne: 'I know where the bodies are buried'

Alistair Darling gave a pre-Budget briefing this afternoon. A bit of a climb-down for the former Chancellor, and not hugely detailed.

In his defence, he noted how he no longer has the full Treasury machine to do his number crunching, just one (rather young looking) assistant by his side.

But he made clear that When George Osborne rises at 12.30pm tomorrow, the former Labour Chancellor knows the tricks of the Treasury.

“I am well aware of what is lying around in there,” he said pointedly.

Asked what sort of things the civil servants might be proposing, he added: “As you can imagine in the Treasury there are a whole host of ideas, some are fit for human consumption, some are not.”

Even so, he would be “astonished” if VAT did not rise to 20 per cent tomorrow.

I confess I am not so sure. Both Cameron and Osborne went further than they needed to in recent weeks to suggest it was not on the cards – almost with a wink - and within a whisker of ruling it out completely.

I wonder if the government has been happy for the VAT thread to continue in recent weeks, only to announce tomorrow that it won’t rise after all.

But then, I don’t know where the bodies are buried.

UPDATE: A lot of eyes will be on what happens to Capital Gains Tax. Westcountry Lib Dems are keen to see the election pledge rise implemented, targetting amongst others second home owners. But Tories are not happy. As Torridge and West Devon MP Geoffrey Cox has just tweeted: "Hoping George will spare the prudent who have buried a bone for a rainy day. "

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Tory MP's goalkeeper grandad

As England manager Fabio Capello grappled last night with who to field as goalkeeper, one Westcountry MP has some sympathy.

Tory Sarah Newton's grandfather played in goal for England in the 1930s, with mixed results.

The newly-elected Truro Falmouth and Camborne MP revealed Ken Tewkesbury had a short-lived career between the sticks for the England national amateur side.

As Capello left until the last moment before deciding whether or not Robert Green deserved another chance after his fumble threw away England’s lead over the USA, it emerged Mr Tewkesbury’s debut on the world stage was no less unfortunate.

Winning his first of six caps against Ireland in 1930, England lost 3-1, though newspaper reports at the time absolved him of blame – which is more than can be said for Green last week.

Mr Tewkesbury also played professionally for Aston Villa, Birmingham, Notts County and Walsall before retiring from the game in 1939. He went on to join the RAF and was among the forces to liberate Belsen.

Ahead of last night’s crunch England game against Algeria, Mrs Newton said: “The pressure that you are under as a goalkeeper - I do think it’s the worst position on the team, all the pressure that you are under.

“I wish our England goalkeeper all the luck in the world.”

Friday, 18 June 2010

RDA rushes to bolt stable door after Vince Cable rode out of town

Oh dear. The South West Regional Development Agency spin machine has gone into overdrive – though possibly a bit late.

As we report in the WMN, Business Secretary Vince Cable all but confirmed the RDA day’s are numbered, criticising them for blowing £50,000 on a staff jolly to Center Parcs and being too Bristol-focused.

Plans are already with Cable to create a Local Enterprise Partnership covering Cornwall, Devon and possibly parts of Somerset.

As one source told me: “The sands of time are running out for the RDA. Suddenly everyone has got the message they are likely to be history pretty quickly.”

After getting an earful from the RDA this morning for our coverage – apparently it didn’t give enough credit for what they had done in Cornwall, though they don’t dispute their days are numbered – a remarkable piece of spin pinged into my inbox.

From an email address called “newsflash” it announces:

RDAs: “One of the most efficient of all Government departments and agencies…” and “Focused on getting the economy moving again”

Government analysis shows that England’s RDAs are among the most efficient of all departments and agencies, and also confirms economic benefits arising from RDA work.
And so it goes on for 1,400 words.

This analysis has been around for sometime, and still the coalition is committed to getting rid of them.

I was told that the argument in today’s paper needed more balance, though it seems the argument is probably over.

Though the RDA isn’t going down without a fight, it does all seem like locking the stable door long after the horse has bolted.

Lib Dem named “one to watch” by body chaired by his predecessor

Ping! An email arrives from Steve Gilbert, the uber-busy new MP for St Austell and Newquay.

He is “honoured” apparently to have been named “the ‘one to watch’ from the Lib Dem benches on the important local issue of housing by the influential National Housing Federation.”

He goes on:

“I see it as a reflection on the added challenges a community like ours faces when it comes to planning future developments and ensuring local provision in the housing stock.

“Most of the people I grew up with cannot afford to get onto the property ladder in Cornwall. It’s a sad reality that sees far too many local people move away to live and work.”

All true enough, but no space to mention the small – though no doubt unrelated - detail that the National Housing Federation is chaired by Matthew Taylor, former Lib Dem MP and Mr Gilbert’s predecessor in St Austell.

Calling all loonies! Want to open a school? Tell Michael Gove why, in no more than 200 words

A strange briefing this morning where Education Secretary Michael Gove explained is plan for Swedish-style "free schools" springing up across the country.

I have to admit there is a slight suspicion that it is a chance for pushy parents and frustrated teachers to indulge in an ego-trip in setting up their own school. Lots of talk this morning about allowing an “invocative ethos” to permeate.

As the invitation was thrown open to anyone wanting to set up a school, we were given the application form, which included the above section, asking someone why they want to open and run a school – a school! – in no more than 200 words.

You have to give more information to run the London Marathon.

Mr Gove stressed though that extremists need not apply. Phew.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Is ex-MP Julia Goldsworthy about to become a spin doctor?

She complained a week or two ago in an interview with the WMN that there were too few women in the new politics.

But Lib Dem Julia Goldsworthy - who lost the Camborne and Redruth seat by 66 votes - could be about to change that... sort of.

Rumours persist in Westminster that she is about to be appointed a special advisor, possibly to new Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

The pair know each other well as part of the youthful Lib Dem intake of 2005. They once did a joint "Big Breakfast meets PowerPoint" presentation at the Lib Dem conference, perched on bar stools if memory serves.

Julia also shadowed the treasury job at the same time as appearing on The Games in Channel 4. Could a similar move help Mr Alexander's profile? Anyone got a number for Davina McCall?

A Treasury spokesman could neither confirm nor deny the story but noted Mr Alexander already had one
Spad. His Labour predecessor Liam Byrne had two. David Laws only had one, but might not have had time to appoint a second...

Julia isn't returning calls. We await confirmation.

Regional quango staff offered a permanent away day

The government has moved to “choke off” millions of pounds in funding for the regional assembly which Labour falsely claimed to have scrapped.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles vowed to pull the plug on Whitehall support for the unelected, near-anonymous “talking shop” which had been simply re-branded as the South West Strategic Leaders’ Board.

When the WMN tried to contact the Strategic Leaders’ Board at its Taunton HQ yesterday, we were told no-one could comment because they were “all on an away day”.

A government source said: “Pretty soon they will be on one long extended holiday.”

Within days of becoming Prime Minister in 2007, Gordon Brown made great play of a pledge to scrap the South West Regional Assembly. MPs in the region celebrated, saying: “good riddance and good bye” to the assembly.

But in March this year a junior Labour minister admitted: “No regional assemblies have been abolished.”

Instead, it had been replaced by the vague-sounding South West Strategic Leaders’ Board, last year receiving more than £2 million in funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government. It meant saving just £230,016 on the assembly’s budget.The Leaders’ Board is the “executive arm” of a body called South West Councils,

Members include Torbay mayor Nick Bye, Plymouth city council leader Vivien Pengelly and Julia Day from the Council of the Isles of Scilly. Alec Robertson, Ken Maddock and John Hart, leaders of the Cornwall, Somerset and Devon county councils respectively, also sit on the board.

Councils will now be free to “organise themselves and work together as they choose”, also paving the way for the demolition of the South West Regional Development Agency.

Who is missing ex-Labour MP Linda Gilroy?

Something weird is going on, a colleague told me. Whenever you go on the excellent – the searchable version of Hansard – it lists the most popular searches.

And all this week, and indeed for several months, the top search has regularly been the same: Linda Gilroy

Except Labour’s Linda lost her Plymouth Sutton and Devonport seat in the general election to Tory Oliver Colvile

Is someone struggling to cope with this loss? Or is a keen web user using their spare time to look back on some of her best bits?

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The £1.3 million project which gave NHS-branded bibs to babies

Clearing out a drawer in the kitchen last night I came across this piece of taxpayer-funded nonsense which we were given when our daughter was born in October.

When the government kept telling us how important it was to protect health budgets, I didn’t realise it meant producing NHS-branded bibs which would struggle to act as a duster.

Why anyone would want to feed their baby in state-sponsored propaganda is beyond me, and without a plastic backing is almost completely useless at stopping clothes underneath getting wet. (Trust me).

And what do you find when you go to

A brightly-coloured survey asking probing questions about how your child is developing, like:

Of course not everyone takes to parenting easily, and needs extra help.

But a few more visits from a midwife or health visitor would be better than handing out branded freebies that no-one will use to promote a website which borders on patronising.

Incidentally, in 2009-10 NHS BabyLife check cost around £1.3 million.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Lib Dems won’t give up the trappings of opposition

It might be five and half weeks since the election, but some of our duly elected representatives are still without an office in the Commons.
One Westcountry MP tells me that some “Liberal Democrat colleagues are being difficult about their moving arrangements”.

In English, this apparently means some veterans “have rather nice offices and don’t want to leave them”. They have been given less salubrious billets by the whips.

As a result, some of the new intake are still squatting in the offices of rather more helpful colleagues.

So much for the new politics.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Why did Labour splash the cash on designer sofas and executive bins?

OK, the obvious answer is they thought the money would just keep on flowing. They believed the Gordon Brown’s hype about abolishing boom and bust.

But the enthusiasm of Labour ministers for announcing wads of spondoolicks ran right through the public sector, where the pennies just kept on flowing.

Earlier this week, I reported on how civil servants ignored the onset of recession and blew thousands of pounds on up-market “executive” waste bins because they looked nicer for visitors.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spent an extra £32,000 on the "aesthetically pleasing" bins, instead of opting for a budget option which was “slightly larger”.

Officials even examined the bins at large private firms including Deutsche Bank and Virgin Media.


They then settled on the range of “executive bins” for separating paper, recyclables and waste for landfill - costing £148 each instead of just £57 for the standard wheelie bin – because they looked nicer for visitors.

An internal report said: "The Executive bins are specifically built for an office environment and are aesthetically pleasing, but cost £32,273 more than the slightly larger and more cumbersome adapted wheelie bin version, which offers a budget option for delivery of this project.

"Choosing the Executive bin option would maintain the professional office environment that Defra look to maintain throughout their estate, especially in their HQ buildings to which many important visitors come."

Now it has emerged* that the Department for Communities and Local Government, the home of pointless announcements and wacky spending under Labour, spent more than £134,000 on luxury sofas intended to create a “peaceful oasis” in the workplace.

In total 28 of the shocking-red “Alcove Highback” sofas – costing £4,120 each - by Parisian designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, were ordered for the department’s central London headquarters at a total cost of £134,503.

They were part of a an efficiency initiative called “SpaceFlex” to make the department “more practical” and save money.

According to the marketing bumpf: “Sitting within the Alcove Highback, you cannot be seen or heard from the outside, and find yourself in a secluded space.”

And at DCLG, nobody can here you pouring money down the drain.

[* The sofa story is running on PA but I think it came from today’s Sun]

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Councils told to cut millions by press release

Eric Pickles today spelt out the details of the budget cuts faced by every council in the country.

It is part of £1.1 billion needed from town halls for the Osborne/Laws £6.2 billion early cuts.

While the main block grant was untouched, the extra "bits and pieces funding" so loved by Labour is getting the chop.

On average it means a 0.7% cut in revenue - not massive though one council leader told me that the services currenty funded by the £3 million or so they had to cut would be first for the chop.

Mr Pickles made the announcement in a written ministerial statement at 10.30am this morning, just as he began his debut at the despatch box.

I began phoning the big councils in my patch, and with each call the bemusement of the press officers grew.

They had no idea it was coming and were completley in the dark.

One press office boss told me the first details of their budget cuts came in the press release I sent them. The Department for Communities and Local Government missive to their chief exec arrived almost an hour later.

"We might have had a change of government, but the machinary is as incompetent as ever."

Another press officer had apparently never even heard of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

They pay your wages, dear. At least for now.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Sisterly row as Goldsworthy says Harman only acting leader after “kicking around” Labour party for years

Former Liberal Democrat MP Julia Goldsworthy has stepped into the debate on the dearth of women in coalition top jobs.

She was the subject/victim of the Saturday Interview in the Western Morning News (right), and warned it is “unacceptable” that her party now has fewer women MPs than before the election.

The new coalition government attracted criticism for only having three women in the Cabinet – all of them Conservative.

But in an apparent swipe at those who were over-looked, Julia said: “I think it’s a problem for all parties and I don’t think that with the options that they had before them I don’t think David Cameron and Nick Clegg could have done anything different really than what they have got.”

I think that’s called making the best of a bad job.

She also had some very un-sisterly comments to make about acting Labour leader Harriet Harman.

“If you look at the way the Labour party works, Harriet Harman is basically somebody who has been kicking around the Labour party and those organisations for a really long time and there probably aren’t that many women who have had that kind of experience.”

She blamed the “career break” that women have when having children for damaging the personal and professional relationships which help to get ahead in politics.

The 31-year-old, who lost the Camborne and Redruth seat by just 66 votes, said women MPs in fall into two categories – those “at the pre-child bearing phase… and then another lump at the other end whose children are a bit older and there’s not really anything in the middle”.

“I have changed my mind on all women shortlists because I think there’s a real danger that we will go backwards if we don’t do something. I wasn’t selected on an all-woman shortlist and for me that was really important because I wanted to be the best candidate.

“But the Lib Dems now have fewer women MPs than they did in 2005 and that’s not acceptable nothing should be rule out.”

The Lib Dems fielded women in three of the six seats in Cornwall at the election – and all were defeated by Tories.

The comments have provoked a bit of a spat with Julia’s Labour opponent in the election, Jude Robinson. (right)

She said on Twitter:
If you are as disgusted as I am at @jgoldsworthy 's bitchiness to Harriet Harman, here please register and comment.
Then later:
If @jgoldsworthy really concerned about women in politics, why so bitchy about @harrietharman?
Julia responded:

I have plenty of time for Harman - but far more men than women work their way through the pol/party machines - she's unusual
Provoking Jude:
Then an acknowledgment would have been appropriate, not dismissive comment

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Labour leadership rivals clash over "swinging rope"-gate

First it was Iraq. Then the language of New Labour.

Now contenders for Leader of the Opposition have disagreed over the merits of joint use of playground equipment in the name of a publicty stunt.

Andy Burnham, one-time health secretary, used a speech in the Commons to distance himself from the blunder when in government with Schools Secretary Ed Balls.

Burnham said in the Commons: "I rarely missed an opportunity to promote joint working between our two departments, although we can probably both admit now that jumping on a rope swing was, in retrospect, a promotional step too far."

At which point Balls, practising the new politics of positivity, said: "I enjoyed it."

But Mr Burnham abandoned the cost consensus to insist: "I beg to differ."

This contest is getting ugly.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

PMQs - Sober and serious but can it last?

Better late than never, David Cameron today delivered on one of his 2005 promise to end “Punch and Judy” politics.

True, he spent the best part of five years beating Labour’s two Prime Ministers over the head with a stick. Again. And again.

But shortly after 3pm, a more sombre, serious and altogether more sensible mood prevailed in the Commons for the first Prime Minister’s Questions since the election. None of the usual farmyard braying from the Class of 2010.

It was difficult to imagine anything else, after Mr Cameron’s first act was to pay tribute to troops killed in Afghanistan and then relaying to MPs details of the shootings in Cumbria.

At the time of speaking, at least five people had been killed by a gunman, Mr Cameron said calmly. A number of MPs were visibly shaken. “God,” exclaimed one Labour frontbencher, biting her lip. The death toll has since risen to at least a dozen.

Harriet Harman, holding the fort while various Milibands and Eds battle it out to be leader, began with the equally sobering subjects of Israel and rape convictions.

But she came unstuck when criticising Tory plans to recognise marriage in the tax system. Mr Cameron noted that if Christmas parties and parking a bicycle at work were given special treatment by HMRC, why not those who get hitched?

Labour had made an “enormous recognition of marriage” through changes to inheritance tax, transferring allowances from husband to wife.

If it’s OK for the rich, why not the poor, he asked to Tory cheers. A solid hit, sending Ms Harman’s final ball to the boundaries.

Liberal Democrat deputy PM Nick Clegg nodded slightly, reduced from spare part to playing no part at all in this weekly ritual.

The overall tone was more grown-up. What was being said seemed to matter. “I am going to give accurate answers rather than making them up on the spot.” Hmm, we’ll see.

For the new MPs it will have been an anti-climax. Tiverton and Honiton Tory new boy Neil Parish stood on his tippy toes to peer over taller colleagues, from behind the Speaker’s chair. At the opposite end Sheryll Murray (Con, South East Cornwall) had heavy eyelids.

Not the bear pit they had seen on the TV. Give it time though, give it time.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Worth remembering it is Clegg who would do the firing

Amazing story from the Telegraph today on David Laws paying £40,000 to his partner, with much of the furore focussing on the fact he has been “outed” as gay.

Certainly the “revelation” of Mr Laws’ sexuality is not much of a revelation to his Yeovil constituents, many of whom thought they’d “known” about it for years.

The question will be which way the argument falls on privacy vs expenses. Paul Waugh suggested this morning that, rather like the Ecclestone F1 affair early in New Labour’s honeymoon, Cameron and Clegg should be able to ride this one out.

But it is worth remembering that during the early days of the coalition, it was stressed that the hiring and firing of Lib Dem ministers was the job of the DPM aka Nick Clegg. Will the Orange Bookers rally round?

Here is what some Westcountry politicians (past and present) have been saying this morning:

Julia Goldsworthy on Twitter:
“Judge politicians on how good they are, and allow them personal privacy. David Laws has intellect and integrity - this country needs him.”
Foreign office minister and Taunton MP Jeremy Browne on the Today programme:
"I've known David for about 15 years and can tell you categorically that this is a human story, it is not a financial story. He is a deeply private man and he has a personal wish not to have his life put up in lights.
"This is not about David being motivated by money. He gave up a very lucrative job to go into politics. He could have earned a lot more money that this.
"What it is about is him wanted to be a private person and I think he should be able to be that."
He referred to the row as "a massive distraction, motivated possibly by politics, to try and tear David down."
Hat tip Politics Home 
Lord Ashdown said:
"The central question is, what does a partnership actually mean...I don't believe you should be making a judgement about that.
"David has referred this to the parliamentary commissioner as he, as a man of integrity, would, and we must now wait for his judgement.
"His moral authority has only been damaged if what he has done is an act of wrongdoing. You and I do not know whether that is the case at the moment."
Hat tip Politics Home 
Kevin Davis, the Tory candidate in Yeovil, said:
“I actually think Mr Laws was doing a good job as Chief Secretary but I fear that he can only come to the conclusion that he must step down. I say this reluctantly because the coalition needs good people to work for it but the fact is that he has now undermined that coalition by raising again the problem of sleaze and expenses, just when we thought that matters had been cleared up and we could move on.”

Minister says £6 billion cuts are "peanuts" compared to what's coming

The £6 billion of cuts announced this week is “peanuts” compared to the budget bloodbath expected in the autumn, farming minister Jim Paice warns today.

In the Saturday Interview, Mr Paice admits he has no “wadge of money” to spend on new projects as the belt-tightening begins.

On Monday, Chancellor George Osborne announced cuts to all government departments. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was told to find £162 million, the equivalent of 5.3 per cent of its total budget.

Mr Paice told the Western Morning News it was “very tough” to find the savings, but hopes that this first round of cuts can fall on “backroom” costs while protecting frontline services.

But the comprehensive spending review, planned for the autumn, is likely to involved far greater reductions as the Treasury moves to tackle the £150 billion deficit.

Mr Paice said: “This £6 billion is peanuts compared to what we are going to have to do over the next three years as we move into the comprehensive spending review. That’s where all departments, not just Defra, are going to start saying there are some things which we currently do which we will have to stop doing.”

Quangos like Natural England and the Environment Agency will be told to stop some of their work altogether, while Defra itself prepares to abandon some of its output.

“You’ve going to have to take out whole heads of expenditure.”

Mr Paice insists farming is his priority, as he sets out a “clear direction” for officials at the department which was heavily criticised by the Tories in opposition.

Key issues high on his agenda include planning for a cull of badgers, clamping down on unclear food labelling, cutting red tape and demanding Whitehall buys British food.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Lib Dem MP said he wouldn't become a Lord. Guess what?

January 17 2007

Matthew Taylor announes he is quitting as an MP and tells the WMN he had no immediate job plans after he leaves the green benches behind him – but ruled out a move to the House of Lords.

“I would assure people that whether they like it or not they won’t have heard the last of me.”

May 28 2010

Matthew Taylor becomes Lord Taylor.

To be fair, he has a great explanation for this u-turn.

"I only intend to have some continuing national voice in Parliament on these issues for a short while longer. When I announced in 2007 that I would not be seeking re-election as an MP, I fully expected that by the General Election the then Labour Government would have honoured its pledge to have an elected House of Lords. Therefore I expected no new peerages would be made. I have accepted this unexpected honour with the specific intention of abolishing myself by voting through the new Coalition Government's pledge to democratise the Lords."

Congratulations to Matthew, and to two other former Westcountry MPs and ex-ministers, Tory Angela Browning and Labour's Jim Knight, who also become peers.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Lib Dem MP says public "appalled" at coalition policy on badger cull

A Westcountry Lib Dem MP has become the first in the region to publicly criticise government policy.

Torbay MP Adrian Sanders condemned the coalition's plans for a cull of badgers in the region to deal with the spread of TB, saying people would be "appalled" at the idea.

Such a move would be a “massive waste of public money”, Mr Sanders claimed.

And he pinned his hopes on a government u-turn after reports new Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman was blocking the policy – a claim denied by the minister.

A targeted cull of diseased badgers in the areas where bovine TB is at its worst was both Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy before the election.

Last year, 40,000 cattle were destroyed nationally as a result of the disease, with almost half in the South West region.

The coalition agreement, published last week, pledged: “As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis.”

On the same day a national newspaper claimed the policy was being “blocked” by Ms Spelman while she “reviews the scientific evidence”.

But at a press conference Ms Spelman insisted there was no change in stance, and warned “time has been lost in dealing with this issue” while Labour refused to sanction a cull.

The Western Morning News understands that officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have already begun drawing up plans for a cull in England, after the Welsh Assembly begins its own programme.

But Mr Sanders, Lib Dem deputy chief whip, said: “So many Torbay constituents are appalled by the idea of a badger cull; there is not enough scientific evidence that it would make any difference and any cull would simply be a massive waste of public money.”

“Culling badgers simply is not the right way forward.”

Tories oppose naming Plymouth street after Michael Foot as "overtly political"

A growing row over whether a road in Plymouth should be named after Michael Foot was flagged up to me by a couple of people on Twitter yesterday.

There seems to have been some debate about whether or not the former Labour leader could be classed as "local" to the city he served as MP, and was of course one of the most famous Argyle fans.

This is from today's Western Morning News:

A row has broken out over whether a Plymouth street should be named after former Labour party leader and city MP Michael Foot.

Mr Foot, who died aged 96 in March, was MP for Devonport from 1945 to 1955 and fought for cash to rebuild the city which was blitzed during the Second World War.

Labour councillor Nicky Wildy said she wanted part of a new development in Devonport to be named after Mr Foot.

But Conservative cabinet member Ian Bowyer said it was “overtly political”.

Ms Wildy said: “To describe our suggestion as political is an insult. I don’t think it is about politics at all. It is about Michael Foot.

“He is better known locally for supporting Plymouth Argyle than as an MP. I don’t see why we can’t name a street after him.”

Mr Bowyer said he had nothing personal against Mr Foot.

He said: “In the current climate, with unease about politicians, I believe it is not the right time. However illustrious the name, it is overtly political. It could have been Winston Churchill as far as I was concerned.”

No plans for the development proposed for the Mount Wise area have yet been submitted to the city council.

Liam Fox praises maiden speech of MP who has been here for five years

Oh dear. New defence secretary Liam Fox is obviously a very busy man but last night he got in a bit of a muddle about which MPs were new and which weren’t.

Winding up the defence and foreign affairs debate on the Queens Speech, he praised Plymouth Moor View Labour MP Alison Seabeck for her “incredibly informed maiden speech, albeit a highly political one”.

Except Ms Seabeck was elected in May 2005. And in the last five years has probably spoken on defence more than any other issue in the Commons, often with Mr Fox sitting across the chamber from her.

“It was not my maiden speech,” she insisted, clearly a bit put out.

He apologised: “In any case, she made an incredibly informed speech that I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Got out of that one… just.

In her not-maiden speech, Ms Seabeck boasted how she and ex-Labour MP Linda Gilroy (defeated in this year’s election) had “lobbied very hard” to raise awareness of Plymouth’s defence industry in government.

She might also start lobbying to raise awareness of Plymouth’s MPs too.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Anti-war banner on the side of Parliament - photo

This is an admittedly not very good photo of the banner the peace protestors have unfurled on scaffolding on the side of Speaker's House.

In case you can't read it, it says:

"We respect the soliders. We do not support the war"

In the best British tradition regarding post-horse bolting stable door management, the place is now swarming with police, who are doing a lot of pointing at the banner and scratching heads.

I suspect heads will being banged together by Commons authorities before the end of the day.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Spot the difference: Pensions/Earnings links delayed?

Thursday May 20 – Coalition Agreement launch
We will restore the earnings link for the basic state pension from April 2011.
Tuesday May 25 – Queen’s Speech
The main benefits of the Bill would be to help ensure the future affordability of the State Pension, including the restoration of the link between earnings and the basic State Pension from 2012.
12.15pm: No-one at the Department for Work and Pensions is available to explain this at the moment. They are all in a meeting, apparently.

12.20pm UPDATE: DWP are now saying that the 2012 figure is wrong, and shouldn't have been in the Queen's Speech notes. Asked if it would actually happen in 2011, a spokesman said "that is what it says in the coalition agreement".
Not a great typo to have made though.

£780m Labour housing pledges was not "fully and securely funded"

Labour ministers promised thousands of new homes would be built despite hundreds of millions of pounds in funding not being secured.

The Department for Communities and Local Government took the highly unusual step of releasing details of the scale of Labour’s largesse in the months before the general election.

A trawl of records showed “the previous Government made commitments that were not fully and securely funded”.

It included an eye-watering £780 million towards housing priorities as part of Gordon Brown’s flagship Housing Pledge.

It is understood that the money – half of a £1.5 billion fund - depended on the Home Office and the health, education and transport departments “underspending” on their annual budgets. This money will now be used to tackle the deficit.

A spokesman for Communities and Local Government said the state of the public finances is “severe”.

David Laws, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said the government was instead allocating an £170 million to “fund investment in social rented housing in 2010-11, to help deliver 4,000 social housing starts”.

The Homes and Communities Agency is also cutting £50 million from housing market renewal schemes and £30 million from the gypsy and traveller programme.

No new or further commitments will be entered into.

However Labour’s John Healey, the housing minister until the election, claimed the government’s failure to defend the housing budget would lead to cuts in jobs and homes.

"This is bad for the economy, bad for families' and bad for a housebuilding sector that has been kept going through recession by public investment.

"In failing to defend housing, the new ministers at CLG have shown little fight. On the back of David Cameron's downgrading of Housing Minister to a non-Cabinet post, they've made the Treasury's task of public investment cuts much easier.”

Queen's Speech Day - all bling and bluster

This is the fifth Queen's Speech I have covered for the WMN.

Every year I get a ticket to watch HM dryly reading out the list of Bills from the limited press gallery in the House of Lords.

Every year there is a lot of hanging about, much tittering at over-the-top frocks, cheap looking tiaras and Lords, ladies and high commissioners trying to wedge themselves into their tiny allocated seat.

Every year I make lots of notes for a sketch.

And every year almost none of it gets into the paper, because the contents of the Bills and the exchanges in the Commons are more newsworthy by the end of the day.

I had already begun the fear the same this year. Until the Sunday papers got their mits on apparently the whole Queens Speech.

Which means for the first time exactly what Lady Fotherington-Forsyth-Smythe is wearing risks being the big unknown political shock.

Although there is the small matter of Harriet Harman's first proper outing against David Cameron in the Commons.

Can she really complain about leaks to the press with a straight face?

Monday, 24 May 2010

Where's the meat then, George?

George Osborne made great play at his outdoor press conference this morning about how he was being much more open about the efficiencies than Labour ever were.

No more hiding behind vagaries of “efficiency savings”.

The message does not seem to have got through to all government departments though.

The Department for Communities and Local Government will be saving £362m in cuts in grants to local government.

Asked which grants, I was told: “You might have to wait until the Budget.”

That would take us to the end of June – almost three full months into this financial year. Until then presumably, councils must twiddle their thumbs and wait to be told if the money John Denham, John Healey et al promised just a few weeks ago will ever turn up.

Over at Defra, £162 million in cuts are planned, including vagaries like “limiting recruitment and reducing the number of non-permanent staff; operational savings in IT, estates and procurement; and savings within the delivery of selected programmes”.

Again details hard to come by.

The Department for Transport promises to make savings on “the deferral of £54m that would have been spent on lower priority schemes”.

The Department for Business pledges “£82 million from efficiencies in Universities”.

Fingers crossed that by the end of the day there is a bit more meat on these bones.

At present, it looks like a vegetarian’s feast.

Here come the cuts - Lib Dems about to find out the downside of being in power

It may all be smiles this morning as George Osborne and new Lib Dem best friend David Laws set out £6 billion in cuts, a small but useful first step towards cutting the £156 billion deficit.
Hilariously Labour are grumbling that this is being made to the media first, not Parliament. Almost beyond parody.
Though someone should have a word with the Lib Dem ministers who professed to being disgusted by the 'accidental' leaking of the entire Queen's Speech to two Sunday papers.
As the coalition negotiations showed, if you don't want things to leak, they don't.
Frankly Lib Dem MPs might be better trying to placate their grassroots, who are up in arms not about HOW the cuts are being announced, but that their nice little party is being implicated in the bloodbath.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Live from Whitehall, The Coalition. Forget Prog-Rock, this is prog(ressive) politics.

Lead singer David Cameron sat the first 20 minutes out, leaving his incongruous backing band to thrash out their solos on the platform.

First up, deputy lead singer Nick Clegg rattled through some familiar riffs – freedom, fairness, responsibility. He must get used to playing these big stages.

Next, Home Secretary Theresa May brought a bit of glamour, promising bobbies on the beat, cutting paperwork and more freedom.

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, was having technical trouble. When he was due to take centre stage, a roadie was adjusting his microphone. Ms May offered to fill time by dancing, though it is Mr Cable who is more usually found twirling ladies around ballrooms.

In the awkward delay, Mr Cable joked: “We're making it up as we go along.”

Unfortunately this had the ring of truth to it. Flicking through the coalition agreement, where policy clashes have occurred the wording of the final statements are a fine blend of compromise, vagaries and fudge.

The vote on hunting has become a vote on whether there should be a vote on hunting. Lib Dem Chris Huhne’s energy department will draft the government’s pro-nuclear policy and he will then campaign against it.

And a pledge to freeze council tax for two years has become a one year commitment, while they will “seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities”.

Cutting the deficit takes precedence over everything, we were told again and again. Except, it seems, when there is a publicity budget to spend.

Towering over yesterday’s coalition press conference, at least ten feet tall, were two floor-to-ceiling billboards almost entirely blank but bearing the logo of this new politics.

Inevitably, it also had the mark of a design guru – a colon. It read: “The Coalition: our programme for government.”

The Coalition was written in green. Blue (Tory) and yellow (Lib Dem) of course make green. Keep up at the back!

Mr Cameron insisted it would be “churlish” to look for the holes in the agreement, when hacks should be focussing on all the things they could agree on.

The mood music may be positive now, but as the axe falls on pet projects and divisions emerge on key policies, Tory and Lib Dem backbenchers may be less willing to dance to The Coalition’s tune.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Does this mean the vote to repeal the Hunting Act is on?

Defra today released the full list of ministerial responsibilities for its new (wholly-Conservative) team.
Top man Jim Paice, as widely expected and welcomed in the industry, has become Minister of State for Agriculture and Food.
His responsibilities include:
• Farming
• Food
• Animal health (including endemic and exotic diseases)
• Responsibility and cost-sharing
• Welfare of farm animals
• Single Payments Scheme
• Forestry (including Forestry Commission)
• Agriculture and forestry carbon budgets
• Hunting and shooting
• Agricultural Wages
• Gangmasters Licensing
• Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS)
• Better regulation
• Deputising for the Secretary of State at EU Agriculture Council

Now, the appearance of 'Hunting and shooting' seems significant. A quick trawl through the archive shows none of Labour’s last Defra team was responsible for either of these things.
Shooting is obviously a major industry, and a popular country pursuit, so it is good news that a minister is now overseeing it.
But what about hunting? It has proved impossible to get any information out of the new coalition government about the likelihood of the Tory promise of a free vote on repealing the Hunting Act 2004.
But surely you wouldn’t have a minister responsible for something which remains illegal, would you? It is certainly back on the radar.
I understand new Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman will be setting out her priorities later this week. I suspect this subject will be raised.

Looking down on a sea of Lib Con heads - but where's the Labour Wally?

The WMN perch in the press gallery gives me a fine view of the opposition benches. Almost directly above where the Prime Minister sits, for the last three and a half years I have been able to survey the dozen or so Westcountry MPs on the Tory and Lib Dem side.

Now, I have a problem. In the whole of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset there are just two Labour MPs.

Ben Bradshaw is shadow culture secretary – for the time being at least – leaving Alison Seabeck as the sole backbencher. I shall resist the temptation to suggest this presents me with a political game of Where’s Wally.

Alison’s attempt to stand out during the election of the new Speaker – by wearing an ultra-loyal Labour Red jacked and matching specs – was limited in its impact with the bulk of her female colleagues doing the same.

As it was she was on a green bench near the front and gave me a wave. I suspect in the coming weeks she will be vital voice of opposition in the region.

On the Lib-Con side it was positively bulging, though I laregly only had a view of the top of their heads.

Newly-appointed ministers and very green MPs jostled behind the Speaker’s Chair. Conservative Sarah Wollaston, the GP-turned-MP for Totnes, stood at the door behind the Speaker clutching what appeared to be some forms from IPSA, the expenses watchdog. Very sensible.

East Devon Tory MP Hugo Swire, newly-installed as Northern Ireland Minister, was in the thick of it too.

Amid the mêlée, one impertinent Tory was trying to barge them all out of the way.

“Can I just squeeze through?” inquired… oh… it’s our new Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Punctuality man! At least he was there, though. Gordon Brown, having attracted respect for staying on as an MP, let himself down by not showing up for this parliamentary formality. Indeed, in all the gushing of congratulations to the elections winners and losers, he was completely forgotten.

On the Lib-Con frontbench, the behind-the-scenes struggle for government jobs became all too physical.

It began as the senior ministers returned from a brief but constitutional visit to the Lords.

Business Secretary Vince Cable parked himself on the bench first, tactfully leaving a large space either side, resisting the temptation to cuddle up to his new Tory friends.

Next came Theresa May, new Home Secretary but not a natural bedfellow of Mr Cable.

Things were looking tight when Justice Secretary Ken Clarke spot an inch of green leather between Cable and Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, plonking himself down with a real “oomph”, sparking cheers from the press gallery as if a champion wrestler had just sat on a floored opponent.

Just when it was all looking a bit like sardines in a tin, new Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman came along and somehow found a slither seat to perch on. Though it may actually have been Mr Hammond’s knee.

This is the cosy consensus in action.

Sir Peter Tapsell becomes Father of the House, having first been elected an MP in 1959. He had previously served as an aide to Eden, and frankly knows the place inside out.

Presiding over the re-election of John Bercow as Speaker, he had to endure some truly dreadful jokes at his expense, which he did with good grace.

In the end, Bercow was elected without a fuss. Attempts by Tory troublemakers including Nadine Dorries to force a vote were scuppered by Sir Peter.

We were told to be back for 3.10pm tomorrow. Obviously someone has a big lunch planned.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Ashdown asked for Miliband to rescue Lib-Lab pact

I spoke to Paddy Ashdown yesterday for our first Saturday Interview after the election.
As always he was on great form, quoting the politician's prayer - Lord make my words sweet and reasonable for I may have to eat them - he knows he has said one or two things about the Tories.
But he revealed a lot about his personal role in trying to rescue a deal with Labour, including making an indirect plea to one D Miliband.
Here is an extract:
It is clear Lord Ashdown would have preferred to have seen the Lib Dems enter government with the Labour party – something he came tantalisingly close to doing with Tony Blair in 1997, a deal scuppered by senior Labour ministers.
For three decades the Lib Dems have aimed to be a party of government in their own right by trying to “create a realignment of the left around broadly moderate and liberal values”.
That was the vision of former leaders including former one-time North Devon MP Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel and Jo Grimond.
He insists it was “very important” that the Lib Dem negotiators pursued talks with Labour, even in “pretty fragile circumstances”.
“My job in this process was to keep the Labour option alive because if we hadn’t we would have had no bargaining power with the Tories. So of course many of us, the whole party, would have preferred to do that.”
He insists Mr Clegg simply “kept his promise” that whichever party had the most votes and seats had the right to try to form the government first.
“Did I think it would end up precisely as it ended? No. Did I think there would be a serious attempt to do this? Yes I did.”
Two factors caused the Labour talks to fail. “The first was the old Neanderthals, the old knuckle draggers, stopping it happening for tribal reasons.”
In particular he blames former Deputy PM John Prescott, outgoing justice secretary Jack Straw, and former home secretaries David Blunkett and John Reid. “These were the old tribalists who stopped things happening in ‘97.”
He admits that Mr Brown was also a key roadblock to doing a deal in 1997. The outgoing Labour leader has “many, many personal gifts – one of them is not the personal gift required to run the country”.
But he is also critical of the would-be future Labour leaders who failed to see the potential of doing a deal with the Lib Dems this week.
“I think there was a failure of action by those who could have staked out very clearly this is where they wanted to go.
“By this I mean David Miliband. There was a point, and I will say to you that, not directly but indirectly, I know that this point was made to him: that he ought to come out clearly and say if he was leader of the Labour party he would back this.
“But I fear greatly that he decided that for reasons of a leadership election, he wouldn’t. I think that’s true of others too.”
UPDATE: The Independent on Sunday has picked up the story today. However Jane Merrick reports that:
The accusation that Mr Miliband, the frontrunner in the race to succeed Gordon Brown, could have denied the Conservatives power was rejected by sources close to the former foreign secretary last night.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Three more ministers for the Westcountry

David Cameron and Nick Clegg tonight appointed three Westcountry MPs to senior government jobs as their Liberal Conservative coalition took shape.

The move, on top of Yeovil MP David Laws' Cabinet job, gives the region a much bigger voice in Government than it had under Labour.

Liberal Democrat North Devon MP Nick Harvey becomes minister of state for the armed forces at the Ministry of Defence. He had previously been the frontbench spokesman on defence matters for his party.

He said: “It is an important job at a time when we are fighting a major war in Afghanistan and obviously I want to ensure the best possible support for our troops and the best possible outcome from the defence review.”

Jeremy Browne, the Lib Dem MP for Taunton Deane and former treasury spokesman, becomes a minister of state at the Foreign Office. He told the Western Morning News how he heard the news from Mr Clegg: “I got a call from the man I must start get used to calling the Deputy Prime Minister when I was in Tesco in Taunton.”

And Hugo Swire, long-serving Conservative MP for East Devon, becomes minister of state for Northern Ireland.

All three men are on the rung below Cabinet level on the ministerial ladder. Mr Laws was named Chief Secretary to the Treasury earlier this week, sitting in Cabinet and working alongside Chancellor George Osborne. West Dorset MP Oliver Letwin will be a minister at the Cabinet Office.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Maybe someone should have a look at Vince’s Twitter feed

Ah, the perils of the web. As Vince Cable is confirmed as Business Secretary, it might be worth whoever operates his Twitter account either taking it down or removing some of the less complimentary comments about his new Cabinet colleagues.

Tory Inheritance Tax cut costs £6bn and benefits 3000 wealthiest estates 3:05 PM May 2nd via web
Labour and the Tories are as bad as each other. Their plans would drive public finances into the ground 11:48 AM Apr 1st via web
Tory policy on NICs is school boy economics 1:15 PM Mar 29th via web
Osborne is out of his depth 7:01 PM Feb 24th via web
Labour and Tories are accusing each other of being confused and contradictory on the economy, and they're both right. 1:44 PM Feb 1st via web
Tories confused about cuts 4:09 PM Jan 29th via web
Lack of clarity in Labour and Tory approaches to banks 10:29 AM Dec 7th, 2009 via web