Mehdi's Morning Memo: 'Misery And Hardship'

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The five things you need to know on Friday 8 February 2013...

1) 'MISERY AND HARDSHIP'

So the real villain of the row over disability and incapacity benefits isn't Atos, it's the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). That's the verdict of the Public Accounts Committee (nowadays, incidentally,the source of at least one big political story a week).

From the BBC:

"The government is to blame for "misery and hardship" imposed upon claimants being re-assessed for benefits eligibility, the Commons public accounts committee says.

"Chairwoman Margaret Hodge accused the Department for Work and Pensions of being 'unduly complacent' and 'getting far too many decisions wrong'.

She said the medical assessments were hitting 'vulnerable claimants hardest'.

"... Although private firm Atos Healthcare has faced criticism for its role in the assessments process, 'most of the problems lie firmly within the Department for Work and Pensions', she said."

The government's response to this damning PAC report? Well, DWP minister Mark Hoban accused the committee of "scaremongering". The problem, of course, for Hoban and his pals is that the PAC report shows that 40% of appeals against Atos' decisions were successful, even though, as the BBC report notes, "no new evidence had been presented in one-third of these cases".

Over to you, Mark...

NOTE: Apologies for the much shorter memo this morning - five things you need to know, rather than ten - because I am still shattered after last night's Huffington Post UK debate, 'Was It Worth It? Iraq, Ten Years On', featuring, among others, Clare Short, Bernard Jenkin MP, David Aaronovitch and, er, me. It was a packed house at Goldsmiths, with more than 500 people in attendance, and if you want to know who won, what was said, etc, check out the HuffPost report and live blog on the event.

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2) EU BUDGET

His backbenchers may hate him over gay marriage, but, these days, they love him over Europe - and they may love him even more today if David Cameron returns from Brussels with... wait for it... an historic EU budget cut. From the Guardian:

"European leaders were inching towards a deal in the early hours of Friday morning that would see the first cut in the EU's budget in its 56-year history.

"David Cameron, who had demanded a freeze in real terms in the near-€1tn budget, was planning to claim victory after the European council president proposed a €34.4bn cut over the next seven years.

"Herman Van Rompuy finally tabled his budget proposals in Brussels at 6am after a night of haggling at the EU summit that was described by one official as like a 'bazaar'."

But the BBC's Nick Robinson is reporting on the Today programme that while the overall budget may be cut in real-terms, the British contribution may actually go up - as a result of changes to our rebate agreed by David Cameron's predecessor-but-one, Tony Blair.

The devil, as is so often the case on all matters related to the EU, may be in the detail.

But Eurosceptics won't care for now - the Mail Online has splashed on: "Victory For David Cameron..."

After a tough start to the week, Downing Street will be very pleased this morning.

3) 'HUHNE FORCED ME TO ABORT MY BABY'

The newspapers are all over the Vicky Pryce trial this morning; the ex-wife of disgraced ex-energy secretary Chris Huhne is on the front of the Indy, the Guardian, the Times, the Mirror, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail - from the Mail's splash:

"Vicky Pryce broke down as she told yesterday how Chris Huhne forced her to have an abortion for the sake of his career.

"The high-flying economist, 60, told a jury that her fiercely ambitious husband warned her that a baby would be 'bad timing' for his political future.

"Pryce, who went on to have another child, wept as she said she had 'regretted it ever since'. Her revelation came as she launched an attack on the shamed former Cabinet minister during her trial for perverting the course of justice."

Pryce has pleaded not guilty to perverting the course of justice by taking Huhne's penalty points after a speeding offence in 2003 and, as the Guardian notes, "her defence is one of marital coercion".

Meanwhile the paper also reports on how the Lib Dems "look to have a tough job on their hands to retain Chris Huhne's seat in the Eastleigh byelection after a starting-pistol poll put them three points down on the Conservatives, largely due to the defection of some of their supporters to Labour.

"The survey, conducted on 4-5 February by the former Conservative deputy chairman, Lord Michael Ashcroft... shows the Conservatives on 34%, the Lib Dems on 31% and Labour on 19%. The UK Independence party (Ukip) is fourth with 13%. The figures reveal a 16-point fall in the Lib Dem vote since the 2010 general election, and nine-point rises for Labour and Ukip."

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of a gopher performing in a ballet dress. Yep, this is what the internet was invented for...

4) 'FACEBOOK HITLIST'

It's not looking good for the Arab Spring, with Tunisia plunged into political crisis - and violence. The Times reports:

"A leading secular politician accused Muslim extremists yesterday of trying to establish a religious dictatorship in Tunisia after the assassination of a prominent critic of the country's main Islamist party.

"Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, of the centrist Republican Party, said that he had been under police protection for months during rising tension between Islamists and secular parties."

"... The Kapitalis news site posted a hitlist of prominent secular politicians and journalists that it said had been circulating on Islamist Facebook pages. The list, last updated on Monday, featured Chokri Belaid, a politician and human rights lawyer who was shot dead outside his home in Tunis two days later. He had recently warned of growing violence by Islamist enforcers close to the ruling Ennahda party.

"Mr Belaid's murder has pushed Tunisia farther into danger, two years after the start of the Arab Spring. The political deadlock gripping the country has tightened and the ruling party has blocked an attempt by Hamadi Jebali, its Prime Minister, to form a unity government."

5) DOWN WITH DRONES?

Finally, America is having a debate (of sorts!) about the Obama administration's drone war - from the FT:

"John Brennan, the Obama administration's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, gave a vigorous defence of the policy of killing suspected terrorists with drone strikes but suggested yesterday that the agency might conduct fewer such operations.

"Mr Brennan insisted that the US government had 'rigorous standards' for considering targeted killings and that its military operations against al-Qaeda were welcomed in many of the countries in which they have taken place.

"Mr Brennan, who was a career CIA official for more than two decades, said the agency needed to be able to conduct covert operations but he hinted that it might scale back its use of drone strikes. Some of the CIA's activities since the September 11 attacks had been 'a bit of an aberration', he said, adding that the agency "should not be doing traditional military activities and operations".

If you want to read evidence of why Brennan is wrong about "rigorous standards" and drones supposedly "saving lives", check out my drone-myth-debunking blog post from last October: 5 Things They Don't Tell You About Drone Strikes.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 41
Conservatives 33
Lib Dems 11
Ukip 9

That would give Labour a majority of 92.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@TomHarrisMP I know he's a liar, a hypocrite and a LibDem to boot, and he deserves everything he gets, but I feel sorry for Chris Huhne. #bbctw

@jameschappers Cameron is going to have a lethal new line against Miliband: even the *EU* has agreed to big spending cuts #eubudget

@benedictbrogan See @marycreagh_mp is making running against Defra by saying she wouldn't eat Findus horsemeat lasagne. Will Owen Paterson tuck into one?

900 WORDS OR MORE

Fraser Nelson, writing in the Telegraph, says: "Michael Gove may have lost a skirmish over the EBacc, but he’s winning the war."

Philip Collins, writing in the Times, says: "It’s not heresy to demand that hospitals treat people like customers. More listening would have meant fewer deaths."

Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, says: "Mid Staffs will be used to justify further reforms – and of the very kind that contributed to that horror in the first place."

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