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Mehdi's Morning Memo: Are You In Or Out?

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ERIC PICKLES
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The ten things you need to know on Monday 14 January 2013...

1) ARE YOU IN OR OUT?

The prime minister David Cameron has been on the Today programme this morning, telling John Humphrys that he agreed with George Osborne's comments that the EU had to change if the UK was going to stay inside the Union.

Would it be 'mad' to leave the EU, asked Humphrys (referring to yesterday's Mail on Sunday splash)? "I choose my words carefully," replied DC, dodging the question, adding that the UK would not "collapse" outside the EU. And he said: “The idea that everyone in Europe has to do everything at the same speed, in the same way, is wrong.”

Nonetheless, he criticised the 'Norway model' - which has to implement EU laws - "by fax" - without being part of the EU. But it is in the end "for our country, for our people" to decide on our future inside the EU.

But he told the BBC that his long-awaited "speech is finished...and largely ready to go". He repeatedly refused to comment on whether he'd be offering the public an in/out referendum, as suggested by Eric Pickles yesterday (see below).

The papers, meanwhile, yet again, are full of Europe/Cameron/Tory headlines. As I said yesterday, it feels like the early 1990s again.

"Pressure mounts on Cameron," says the headline in the Financial Times this morning, referring to the Tory leader's forthcoming speech on the future of the UK's relationship with Europe.

Cameron's cabinet colleagues don't seem to be helping, though - Eric Pickles gave an interview to Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday evening which seemed to pre-empt the PM's much-heralded EU speech.

From the front of the Daily Telegraph:

"David Cameron is preparing to offer British voters a referendum on whether it is 'in our interests or not to remain in the European Community', a senior Cabinet minister disclosed on Sunday night.

"Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, said that Britain should not remain in the EU 'at any price' and pledged to cast his vote in the referendum based on his judgment of the “national interest”.

".. Asked whether the referendum would be about 'accepting or rejecting' Britain’s EU membership, Mr Pickles replied: 'In the interests of Britain it will be about whether or not it’s… in our interests or not to remain in the European Community. And I tell you, I won’t be voting on party lines, I’ll be voting on what I think is the interest of the country.'"

I wonder how many other Tory cabinet ministers will decide to give their two cents' worth on Europe between now and next Tuesday's 'tantric' speech by the PM in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, the Times reports:

"A chasm between David Cameron and the overwhelming majority of Conservatives over Europe is starkly illustrated in a new poll today.

Seventy-eight per cent of Tory members want to quit the European Union, either altogether or to replace it with a common market relationship, according to the survey by the ConservativeHome website.

"Only 16 per cent want the kind of future that is expected to be the central vision of the Prime Minister's landmark speech on Europe next week, in which some powers would be repatriated to the UK from Brussels."

2) PENSIONS BOOST OR 'CON TRICK'?

From the Press Association:

"Plans for a radical shake-up of state pensions will be announced by the Government on Monday..

"The Coalition's proposals include a single flat rate state pension, equivalent to around £144 in today's money, to be introduced for new pensioners from 2017 in a bid to simplify the system.

"Ministers said the reform will create a simple flat rate pension set above the means test (currently £142.70) and based on 35 years of National Insurance contributions and will 'hugely benefit' women, low earners and the self employed, who under existing rules find it almost impossible to earn a full state pension."

The centre-right newspapers are very excited:

"£155 Pension Boost For Stay-Home Mothers," says the Daily Mail splash headline.

"Pensions To Soar By 25%," says the Daily Express on its front page.

"£500 Bonus For Women In Pension Reform," reads the headline on the front of the Daily Telegraph.

But the Guardian reports that

"..the government announcement, due to be unveiled in a white paper, was immediately condemned by the National Pensioners Convention as a "con trick" for future generations.

"The convention directly challenged Duncan Smith's claim, saying that women will suffer because pensioners will have to make national insurance contributions for 35 years, rather than the current 30, to benefit from the new pension."

3) TAX AVOIDERS VS THE THE TWO EDS

UKUncut, meet your newest allies! From the Guardian:

"A Labour government would stop 'scandalous' tax avoidance by multinational companies operating in Britain by ending secrecy over tax rates, Ed Miliband has said.

".. The Labour leader told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1: 'We've got a situation where many British companies and many individuals are paying their fair share of tax and they look in horror at a system where multinational companies, some multinational companies from other countries, can make huge profits in Britain and not pay taxes in Britain. This is scandalous, it's got to change. The next Labour government will change it.'"

In an exclusive blog for the Huffington Post UK, shadow chancellor Ed Balls lays out how:

"First on ending tax secrecy, multinational groups should have to publish a simple, single figure for the amount of corporation tax they pay in the UK.

".. But this isn't just about individual companies. So second we're going to have to reform the current rules that allow companies to make profits in Britain but pay no tax. That means reform of our corporation tax system.. The rules need to be clearer, tighter and properly enforced."

4) 'NO, MINISTER'

The Times splashes on the 'cold war' between Sir Humphrey and the coalition's finest:

"An increasingly bitter power struggle between ministers and mandarins is poisoning relations across Whitehall and threatening to derail David Cameron's reforms, The Times has learnt. Tension over the pace and scale of coalition policy has given way to outright mistrust in some departments with ministers feeling blocked by an unwieldy and unwilling Civil Service.

"One Tory Cabinet minister said that the working relationship was akin to both sides waging a permanent 'cold war'.

"Theresa May, the Home Secretary, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary and Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, are among those to have grown exasperated with their staff.

".. Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, the constitutional historian and Whitehall chronicler, said: 'It's as bad as I've ever known it. The 'governing marriage' between the Civil Service and the politicians is in real trouble.'"

You could argue that ministers' decision to brief the Times will only make the marital difficulties much worse. Time to book an appointment with Relate, perhaps.

On a side note, my two favourite factoids from the piece are these:

(i) "Members of the Government's digital service go to meetings with a suitcase holding £1 million of fake banknotes so as to try to focus the minds of civil servants on not wasting taxpayers' money."
(ii) "Mr Cameron and Mr Blair both refer to the satire Yes, Prime Minister as a documentary rather than a comedy."

5) 'HOLLANDE'S WAR'

That's the headline to a rather interesting 'analysis' piece in the Guardian on France's Mali intervention. Angelique Chrisafis writes:

"Already commentators in France are saying Mali could transform Hollande's political image. Unpopular in the polls and accused by critics of dithering on the economy, Mali has shown Hollande in decisive mode. 'If Sarkozy had Libya, Hollande will have Mali,' said Le Parisien, referring to Sarkozy's personal investment against Gaddafi. But 'Sarkozy's war', as Libya was termed, never boosted the former rightwing president's poll ratings and failed to get him re-elected.

The UK has a role in all this too, as the Independent reminds us on its front page:

"The first British war planes sent to assist French military strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali arrived in France last night, where they will be loaded with equipment before flying to Africa today."

And the BBC reports this morning:

"On Sunday, French warplanes bombed the town of Gao in eastern Mali, extending their raids deep into rebel territory.

"France's military has been in action against Islamist militants in Mali since Friday, helping government forces recapture the central town of Konna."

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of a cat getting terrified by Nicky Minaj's face. Yep. You read that right.

6) GETTING HIGH

From the Times:

"Cannabis, Ecstasy and other 'lowharm' drugs should be licensed for sale in chemists to lure young people off alcohol and dangerous legal highs, a group of peers and MPs say today.

"Such drugs should fall into a new 'class D' category that would allow them to be sold legally subject to rules on content, labelling and age restrictions, in a way similar to tobacco and alcohol, according to a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform, which includes former Cabinet ministers from the Conservative and Labour parties.

".. The use of more harmful drugs, such as heroin, should be decriminalised and supplied through government clinics that would focus on treatment, Baroness Meacher, the chairwoman of the group, says. The plans, the most radical yet suggested for drug reform, follow suggestions last month from the Commons Home Affairs Committee that a royal commission be set up to look at far-reaching changes to the drug laws, including decriminalisation."

But will anyone in government actually pay attention to yet another report stating the bleedin' obvious on drugs and the failure of the drug war? Or will ministers just stick it up a high shelf to gather dust with its predecessors?

7) PRIVATISING THE NHS, PART 64

Is this the latest step on the road towards full privatisation of the National Health Service? From the Guardian splash:

"Private companies providing NHS services could be exempt from paying corporation tax on their profits under proposals being considered by a government-commissioned review of competition in the health service, the Guardian has learned.

"Monitor, the NHS's economic regulator, argues that as public sector hospitals do not pay corporation tax and VAT on supplies, whereas private firms do, the result is an ;unfair playing field' in healthcare.

".. Academics say the regulator has been 'captured' by industry. Andrew Street, professor of health economics at the University of York, told the Guardian Monitor had 'been influenced by industry. This looks like pandering to special interests to me. If companies wanted to provide NHS hospital services and not pay tax then they could do so by becoming charities.'"

8) WAR ON THE DISABLED?

More news from the world of welfare 'reform'; from the BBC:

"Thousands of disabled people could lose some benefits because of last-minute changes to the new system of Personal Independence Payments, campaigners say.

The group, We Are Spartacus, says tougher rules to assess how far people can walk mean many claimants will lose help with transport from April."

9) WAR AGAINST THE SHIAS?

From the FT:

"Protests against attacks on Shia Muslims spread across Pakistan yesterday as the prime minister flew to Quetta, where mourners are refusing to bury 96 victims of a bomb attack until they gain protection from Sunni militants.

"The protests were triggered by twin bombings on Thursday targeting Shia ethnic Hazaras in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant group claimed responsibility for the attacks.

"The group, whose roots are in the heartland Punjab province, wants to expel the Shias, who make up about a fifth of the population of 180m people.

"Human Rights Watch says more than 400 Shia were killed in sectarian attacks last year."

10) NEWS FROM THE 'VAMPIRE SQUID'

From the FT's splash:

"Goldman Sachs is among a handful of banks considering delaying UK bonus payouts until after April 6 when the top rate of income tax falls from 50 per cent to 45 per cent.

"The bank's plan, which relates to bonuses deferred from 2010, 2011 and 2012, rather than new awards, is expected to prove controversial despite being legal."

Nice move guys..

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From yesterday's Sunday Times/YouGov poll of the year:

Labour 44
Conservatives 31
Ukip 11
Lib Dems 8

That would give Labour a majority of 124.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@DanHannanMEP Imagine Eric Pickles had said we should stay in the EU even if it were against our national interest. That WOULD have been controversial.

@ShippersUnbound Cameron again using his 'don't believe everything you read in the papers' for: things I said that I wish the papers hadn't found out about

@you_twits Did that guy on BBC News just say "The conflict in Mali has become a Mecca for Islamic extremists" ??? Errrrrrrr try again.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, says: "Britain's new working-class pride could be a bonus for Labour."

Steve Webb MP, writing in the Daily Telegraph, says: "The system we launch today will give workers the help they need in planning for retirement."

Damian McBride, writing in the Independent, says: "Sorry Steve Hilton, there's no excuse for Cameron not to know what his own policies are."

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