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 TheyWorkForYou.com – 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 babylifecheck.co.uk?

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 http://bit.ly/d9UjNn please register and comment.
Then later:
If @jgoldsworthy really concerned about women in politics, why so bitchy about @harrietharman? http://bit.ly/d9UjNn
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.