Mehdi's Morning Memo: The Waiting Game

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The ten things you need to know on Friday 18 January 2013...

1) THE WAITING GAME

What on earth were the Algerians thinking?

From the BBC:

"The fate of a number of British hostages held in a desert gas complex remains unknown in the wake of an Algerian military attempt to free them.

"They were among foreign nationals held near In Amenas who the Algerian forces attempted to free from militants.

"... David Cameron has warned of further possible "bad news".

"The prime minister postponed a major speech on Europe scheduled for Friday, and Foreign Secretary William Hague has cut short a trip to Australia to return to the UK.

"The BBC's Nick Robinson said sources had told him officials were prepared for 'multiple' British casualties."

The Guardian reports:

"The British government complained it had not been informed before the military operation was launched. Cameron was only told once it was under way and immediately demanded an explanation from Algiers. Washington and Paris indicated they too had been left in the dark."

According to the Beeb:

"Another meeting of the government's emergency response committee, Cobra, will be held later, chaired by Mr Cameron. Ministers are also planning to make a statement to Parliament.

"Mr Cameron said on Thursday night that the country faced 'a very bad situation'.

"'A number of British citizens have been taken hostage. Already we know of one who has died,' Mr Cameron said.

"'It is a very dangerous... a very fluid situation and I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of bad news ahead.'"

2) WHO IS 'MR MARLBORO'?

The papers are full of profiles of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, head of the al-Qaeda-affiliated brigade that claims to have captured the Western hostages in Algeria.

He is, as the Times notes, a "jihadist straight out of central casting. Trained in Afghanistan, he has a long record of smuggling arms, kidnapping and violence, a death sentence passed in absentia, premature reports of his demise and a string of nicknames including One-Eyed, The Uncatchable and Mr Marlboro".

The latter nickname was acquired, says the Guardian, "for his involvement in cigarette smuggling".

The Telegraph calls Belmokhtar a "veteran, one-eyed jihadist-cum-gangster" who has "been reported dead at least twice": "Like other warlords in the region, he operates under the umbrella of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group descended from the radical Islamists that waged war against the Algerian state in the 1990s. Belmokhtar was a key member of the most violent group, the GSPC."

So what's driving him this time? What's his goal? According to the Guardian:

"The reality is the operation is probably as much about his own credentials as a jihadi warlord as it is about the French military operation in Mali, and a reminder to those who sidelined him in AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Maghreb] that he remains a well connected and powerful figure to be reckoned with."

3) 'AMSTERDOOM'

That's the headline in the Sun which, like other papers, goes quite big on extracts from the PM's postponed Europe speech that were briefed out last night - before the decision was taken to delay it at 6:30pm:

"The EU 'will fail' in a doomsday meltdown and Britain will LEAVE unless its deep problems are tackled, David Cameron is set to declare.

"... [I]t emerged the landmark speech will represent the strongest attack on the EU yet made by a serving British Prime Minister.

"When it comes — probably next week — Mr Cameron will claim the EU faces a perfect storm of the eurozone crisis, a lack of competitiveness and a collapse in public support.

"He will say: 'If we don’t address these challenges, the danger is Europe will fail and the British people will drift towards the exit.'"

The Telegraph says the postponement of the speech "represents another setback for Mr Cameron involving the speech, which has been expected since last summer" but it also reports:

"The Prime Minister was backed last night by Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, who said Mr Cameron had to 'put a renegotiated membership to the British people'. In a speech to London government leaders, Mr Johnson said it was 'inevitable' that there would be a referendum and that an exit from the EU was 'neither particularly necessary, nor particularly desirable, nor particularly likely'."

However, the Americans have yet again reiterated their fears about a British exit from the EU, or 'Brexit, with President Obama using a phone call to Cameron to tell our PM, according to a White House spokesman, that "the United States values a strong UK in a strong European Union, which makes critical contributions to peace, prosperity, and security in Europe and around the world".

Meanwhile, writing exclusively for the Huffington Post UK, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has warned Cameron that his attempt to negotiate a new relationship with the Europe could lead "to the break-up of the EU". Also writing for HuffPost UK, the former Belgian PM and now MEP, Guy Verhofstadt, says: "If Cameron fails to show leadership now and allows Britain to drift away from continental Europe, he will guarantee his place in the history books - but for all the wrong reasons."

4) DIVERSE DAVE

Nick's about to get a telling off from Dave, it seems. As my colleague Ned Simons reports:

"David Cameron has said Nick Clegg needs increase the number of female Lib Dem MPs, as he promised to appoint more women to his cabinet.

"In an interview with the parliamentary House magazine published today, the prime minister said he was committed to honouring a pledge to make at least one third of Conservative ministers women.

"But he noted that he could not speak on behalf of his Lib Dem colleagues in government. 'Obviously I can’t apply my pledge to the Lib Dems and obviously they need to improve their diversity and I’ll be having a word with the deputy prime minister about that,' he said."

All of the Lib Dems' five cabinet ministers are men, just seven out of 57 Lib Dem MPs are women and none of them are from an ethnic minority background. Liberalism in the 21st century, eh?

5) 'GETTING OUT OF THE CAGE'

The Telegraph has some other details from the House magazine interview with the PM:

"Recalling the couple's most recent 'date night', he said: 'Last night, we went out for supper, dinner, quite early actually, I was tucked up in bed nice and early last night. But we try and get out of the cage on a regular basis.'

"... Mr Cameron credited his wife with improving the flat. 'It's lovely living here, it's a wonderful flat that she's created, the children are very happy. And she's very happy and family life is good.' Mr Cameron said his wife had given him a DVD of the last season of the Danish crime thriller The Killing for Christmas, which the couple had watched.

"... The Prime Minister said he was reading A Short History of England by Sir Simon Jenkins, which he bought for himself while Christmas shopping. 'I'm on Vikings at the moment,' he added."

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this amusing video of an epic spider-slaying mission going wrong.

6) 200,000 EXTRA POOR KIDS?

From the Independent:

"On Monday, MPs will vote on measures contained in the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill. The Coalition has previously avoided predicting its impact on poverty, but in a parliamentary answer it let slip that 200,000 children would be affected...

"Ministers seem to be in denial that, under current policies, their legacy threatens to be the worst poverty record of any government for a generation," said the Child Poverty Action Group.

The government's evasive response - via work and pensions minister Esther McVey - was to point that "people will still see benefits go up year on year" and to question the official poverty measure: "Looking at relative income in isolation is not a helpful measure to track progress towards our target of eradicating child poverty."

But back in 2006, David Cameron used a major speech to concede: "We need to think of poverty in relative terms... I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty."

How times change, I guess.

7) 'POTTY' PAY

From the Sun:

"Nick Clegg has slammed 'potty' MPs who demanded a huge pay rise — even though his own Lib Dem backbenchers want a 20 per cent hike.

"The Deputy PM hit out after a survey revealed MPs wanted wages raised from £65,738 to more than £86,000 — a staggering 32 PER CENT increase.

"... Despite his MPs' call, Mr Clegg told LBC radio: 'I think it's potty and it's not going to happen.'"

8) BORIS HIRES BFF

Astonishing - from the Guardian:

"Boris Johnson has triggered a new row over alleged cronyism after it emerged that he has offered the post of cycling adviser to Andrew Gilligan, the journalist who did more than any other to topple the London mayor's main rival, Ken Livingstone.

"Gilligan is expected to take up the post part-time while retaining his current staff position at the Daily Telegraph, but will curtail his coverage of London issues. It is understood he will be paid the normal adviser rate on a pro-rata basis. Most of the mayor's advisers are paid more than £90,000."

Can you imagine what Gilligan's hysterical reaction would have been like if the situation had been reversed and it was Livingstone who had made such an appointment?

9) TWEETS AND TWITS

The perils of Twitter. From the BBC:

"Lib Dem MEP Sir Graham Watson has been reprimanded by his own party for responding to the PM's decision to postpone a speech on Europe with the tweet: 'Al Qaeda 1, @David_Cameron 0'."

Oh dear.

10) SERVANTGATE

Forget Plebgate, welcome to Servantgate. From the HuffPost UK:

"Tory MP Christopher Chope has sparked a minor class war by referring to catering staff in the House of Commons as 'servants' and suggesting MPs should get cheaper meals.

"Speaking in the Commons on Thursday morning, the Christchurch MP said he had eaten in Commons restaurants for three nights last week but 'almost nobody else was present'.

"'The service was absolutely fantastic because there was three-to-one service - three servants for each person sitting down,' he said."

You couldn't make it up. Watch the video of his comments in the Commons here.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the latest Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 44
Conservatives 34
Lib Dems 9
Ukip 8

That would give Labour a majority of 118.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@LiamFoxMP PM has made entirely the right decision to postpone speech in light of Algerian hostage crisis.

@joeyjonessky Right decision to postpone speech in such circumstances. More immediate priorities, but the euro headache will return, magnified

@paulwaugh I asked PM if he watched Borgen: “God, no! It’s just whether Morgen Shmorgen is Health Minister or is Education..it’s too much like work!”

900 WORDS OR MORE

Ed Balls, writing in the Guardian, says: "Britain needs reform in Europe, not an exit."

Philip Collins, writing in the Times, says: "The Labour leader should seize his chance to appeal to British business and voters. He must offer an in-out vote now."

Fraser Nelson, writing in the Telegraph, says: "It’s too early for the Tories to assume defeat is inevitable in 2015."

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