Mehdi's Morning Memo: 'Pontius' Cameron Heads For Edinburgh

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** 'Pontius' Cameron Heads For Edinburgh ** Euro Wars ** Can Mitch Survive The '22? ** Cash For Seats? ** Getting High ** Generals For Hire? Part 2 ** Virgin's Victory ** Stop The Press: Sexism On The Front Page! ** Dear Dictator, Did We Hurt Your Feelings? ** Austerity Watch, Part 72 ** Abortion Wars ** The Man Who Fell To Earth **

'PONTIUS' CAMERON HEADS FOR EDINBURGH

David Cameron and Alex Salmond will meet in Edinburgh later today to sign off on an agreement between the UK and Scottish governments on a referendum on Scottish independence.

From the Independent:

"Under plans to be formally agreed by the Prime Minister and First Minister at a meeting in Edinburgh voters will be asked a single yes/no question in the independence plebiscite and the Scottish Government will be able to extend the franchise to those aged 16 or over.

The deal sets the stage for a marathon campaign ahead of the vote which will not be held until in the autumn of 2014.

Under the terms of the agreement the Scottish Parliament will have the power to formulate the exact phrasing of the referendum question."

As I noted in yesterday's Morning Memo, the Tory grandee Lord Forsyth, a former Scottish secretary and outspoken opponent of independence, said the PM had acted like "Pontius Pilate" in conceding so much to the SNP leader.

However, Tory strategists point to Cameron's 'victory' over Salmond in terms of getting a single, not a double-question, in the referendum and the latest polls suggest support for independence in Scotland currently hovers between a quarter and a third.
John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde university, told the FT: "This has been an open question for the last 80 years - another two years are not likely to make a big difference. Giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote might make a marginal difference in an already tight race, but we are a long way from that."

In Edinburgh, Cameron is expected to say: "This marks the beginning of an important chapter in Scotland's story and allows the real debate to begin. It paves the way so that the biggest question of all can be settled: a separate Scotland or a United Kingdom? I will be making a very positive argument for our United Kingdom."

There was much discussion on the Today programme about how Cameron does not want to be the Tory prime minister on whose watch the Union is lost; cynics, however, might argue that, deep down, many Tories might be pleased to see the back of Scotland, without which the Labour Party would find it almost impossible to form a majority government in Westminster.

EURO WARS

The "scale of the task" that David Cameron is setting himself on the European Union, reports the Times, is "unsettling some ministers". The Tory leader wants to promise a referendum in the next parliament to approve or reject a renegotiated relationship with the EU.

"To promise a referendum on the outcome of a negotiation that has not even started seems to me to be madness," one Tory minister tells the Times. Ouch.

The paper adds:

"Two events this week show how uphill and uncertain is the task. On Thursday Mr Cameron goes in to bat for the City when the 27 EU leaders gather for dinner in Brussels to talk about new rules to unify banking within the 17-member eurozone.


Before that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is expected to confirm that the UK will exercise its right to pull out of more than 100 EU-wide agreements on crime, justice and policing."

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail says:"eight Cabinet ministers want Britain to threaten to quit the European Union" off the back of its Sunday sister paper's report yesterday that Michael Gove, the education secretary, has let it be known that he thinks Britain should be prepared to leave the EU altogether unless it is allowed to renegotiate its relationship.

The Mail says Gove has the support of seven other Conservative cabinet colleagues: Philip Hammond, Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers, Justine Greening and Oliver Letwin. (Note: Letwin technically isn't a cabinet minister; he is a minister of state in the Cabinet Office who is allowed to attend meetings of the cabinet.)

On an EU-related note, the Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable used a talk at the Cheltenham Literature Festival to warn that there was "no automatic guarantee" that Europe wouldn't be plunged into war if the euro collapsed:

"I think we need to take stock that if the eurozone were to unravel in away that destroyed the European project - and there is a risk that could happen - the consequences would be absolutely incalculable. We tend to forget, until we were reminded last week of that Nobel Prize, the European project was constructed to rescue Europe from extreme nationalism and conflict. There is no guarantee that won't return."

CAN MITCH SURVIVE THE '22?

The Commons is back today and all eyes are on...you guessed it...the chief whip Andrew Mitchell. Can he survive till the end of the week? Till PMQs on Wednesday? The Telegraph says "the chief whip will meet leaders of the backbenchers 1922 committee amid growing anger among its executive over the way his outburst at police has dominated the headlines in recent weeks". There's an understatement...

The paper quotes one "senior MP" saying:

“He is not a credible figure. He is doing so much reputational damage to the party and to David Cameron."

Which is why Labour, of course, doesn't want Mitchell to quit...

CASH FOR SEATS?

The FT's George Parker reports:

"Senior Conservatives are plotting an audacious "cash-for-seats" offer to Nick Clegg, in which the Liberal Democrat leader would back a Tory-friendly Commons boundary review in exchange for millions of pounds of state funding for his party.

Grant Shapps, Tory chairman, said yesterday he had not "given up hope" of winning Mr Clegg's support for the boundary review, which could give David Cameron a vital 15-20 seats at the next election.

Although Mr Shapps denied on the BBC's Sunday Politics that talks were under way, senior Tory figures have told the Financial Times they believe the cash-strapped Lib Dems would be susceptible to the offer in the months ahead.

"They are basically out of money," said one minister.

Another confirmed that the idea of buying off the Lib Dems with public money was being actively pursued: "There is a plot," the minister said."

However, senior aides to Clegg told the paper that the deputy PM had no plans to change his mind and back a boundary review: "This is completely for the birds," said one. Yep, it's not as if the Lib Dem leader has ever performed a humiliating U-turn on a major policy issue before...

GETTING HIGH

Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips will be coughing up their Corn Flakes this morning. The Guardian reports:

"A six-year study of Britain's drug laws by leading scientists, police officers, academics and experts has concluded it is time to introduce decriminalisation.

The report by the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC), an independent advisory body, says possession of small amounts of controlled drugs should no longer be a criminal offence and concludes the move will not lead to a significant increase in use.

The experts say the criminal sanctions imposed on the 42,000 people sentenced each year for possession of all drugs - and the 160,000 given cannabis warnings - should be replaced with simple civil penalties such as a fine, attendance at a drug awareness session or a referral to a drug treatment programme.

... The commission is chaired by Dame Ruth Runciman with a membership that includes the former head of the British Medical Research Council, Prof Colin Blakemore, and the former chief inspector of constabulary, David Blakey."

Common sense, some might say. Tell us something we didn't know, others might add. But will this report change anything? I doubt it.

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of two twin toddlers falling asleep as they try to eat breakfast.

GENERALS FOR HIRE? PART 2

The Guardian follows up on yesterday's Sunday Times 'undercover' scoop:

"The president of the Royal British Legion could be stripped of his role and a crackdown on lobbying of the Ministry of Defence imposed following claims that former senior military personnel boasted of their access to ministers, senior civil servants and top officers.

Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, has launched an immediate review of rules governing access to ministers and serving officers to "shut down" meetings that could be seen as inappropriate."

VIRGIN'S VICTORY

From the Times:

"Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Trains group is expected to be given a further 18 months in charge of the West Coast Main Line today.

Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, will make the announcement in a statement to MPs about the fiasco surrounding the £13 billion deal to run the busiest and most lucrative long-distance railway in Britain."

Meanwhile, the Independent reports:

"More than 30 senior civil servants in the Department for Transport, including some with direct responsibility for franchising, were axed in the run-up to the West Coast Main Line fiasco, The Independent has learnt.

... More than 30 senior civil servants in the Department for Transport, including some with direct responsibility for franchising, were axed in the run-up to the West Coast Main Line fiasco, The Independent has learnt."

STOP THE PRESS: SEXISM ON THE FRONT PAGE!

The Guardian reports:

"Sexist stereotypes, humiliating photographs of women and male bylines dominate the front pages of British newspapers, according to research carried out by the industry body Women in Journalism (WiJ).

Male journalists wrote 78% of all front-page articles and men accounted for 84% of those mentioned or quoted in lead pieces, according to analysis of nine national newspapers, Monday to Saturday, over the course of four weeks.


The only females to be regularly pictured in the period were the Duchess of Cambridge; her sister, Pippa Middleton, and the crime victim Madeleine McCann. The three males most likely to be photographed were Simon Cowell, whose biography was published that month; Nicolas Sarkozy, who was fighting an election, and Prince William."

DEAR DICTATOR, DID WE HURT YOUR FEELINGS?

From the BBC's Frank Gardner:

"Saudi Arabia says it is "insulted" by a parliamentary inquiry into how the UK deals with the country and Bahrain.

Saudi officials have told the BBC they are now "re-evaluating their country's historic relations with Britain" and that "all options will be looked at".

While they stopped short of cancelling ongoing trade deals, the move reflects growing Saudi resentment at the West's reaction to the Arab Spring.

The Foreign Office said Saudi Arabia remained a close friend and an ally.

... In September, the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) announced it would be opening a wide-ranging review into the UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - two key Gulf Arab partners."

AUSTERITY WATCH, PART 72

Jim O'Neill, the influential chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, told the Today programme this morning that George Osborne should "slow down" the pace of his spending cuts. The IMF, of course, made a similar request a few days ago.

Whatever happened to that 'consensus' you had, Gideon?

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has a column in today's Guardian, in which he makes a prediction: "The longer this stagnation continues, the bigger the fiscal challenges we will face... Tragically, I fear the Treasury will simply bat away the new estimates from the IMF, and Britain will be left with a chancellor in denial, trapped by a failing plan, and dragging the country down with him. Surely Britain deserves better?"

ABORTION WARS

I seem to have got involved and upset lots of people on Twitter. Read my column on why being 'pro-life' doesn't make me any less of a lefty, published in the New Statesman and cross-posted on the Huffington Post UK.

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

Congratulations Felix! From the Mirror:

"With nothing but 24 miles of fresh air between him and the earth's surface, Felix Baumgartner edges from his capsule for his death-defying parachute leap.

The daredevil, 43, calmly leapt out at 128,000 feet to finally begin his recordbusting skydive, plunging at supersonic speeds towards the ground yesterday.

Millions of astonished TV viewers worldwide watched with hearts in their mouths as the Austrian reached an incredible 833mph."

The pictures are AWESOME.

QUOTE UNQUOTE

"This is the end of the phoney war but it isn't going to be like a general election from now on. We will see skirmishes and battles from time to time." - Former chancellor Alistair Darling, head of the 'no to independence' campaign, commenting on the referendum deal.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From yesterday's Sunday Times/YouGov poll:

Labour 43
Conservatives 33
Lib Dems 10

This would give Labour a majority of 116.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@SJacksonMP Not 4 the first time Michael Gove has shown courage & foresight and is right on analysis on EU. Time for Mr Cameron to lead on this issue.

‏@ShippersUnbound Ed Balls has written a piece about politicians in denial. I offer no comment...

@georgeeaton Ernst and Young forecasts growth of 0.7% in Q3 but just 0.1% in Q4. Danger of a triple-dip recession.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Jackie Ashley, writing in the Guardian, says: "I wonder if Mitchell will still be in post by Wednesday...If the chief whip does stay, and by some miracle manages to avoid a lynching by the 1922 committee, then we can say this: Ed Miliband's change of luck continues. It would be by far the best outcome for Labour."

Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Times, urges the Tories to go for the "common ground, not the centre": "You can be Eurosceptic and still love the NHS. The Tories can win if they say so."

Libby Purves, writing in the Times, gives her take on the Nobel Peace Prize: "Despite its faults, the EU deserves this prize."

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com), Chris Wimpress (chris.wimpress@huffingtonpost.com) or Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @chriswimpress, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol