Mehdi's Morning Memo: To Lurch Or Not To Lurch?

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The ten things you need to know on Sunday 3 March 2013...

1) TO LURCH OR NOT TO LURCH?

It's rather strange to see David Cameron proclaiming, in an article for today's Sunday Telegraph, that "the battle for Britain’s future will not be won in lurching to the Right" - and then pick up other papers to see how Tories are in fact responding to the Eastleigh humiliation by..um...er...lurching to the right on human rights and immigration (see stories 2 and 3 below).

Anyways, back to the Telegraph and the PM:

"In his first full response to the Eastleigh by-election result, which saw the Tories beaten into third place by the Liberal Democrats and the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), the Prime Minister pledges not to “abandon” the Government's course.

"Some Tory MPs have challenged Mr Cameron to deal with the rise of Ukip by adopting more Right-wing policies, particularly on issues such as immigration, Europe and crime.

"... The Prime Minister uses an article in The Sunday Telegraph to maintain that the Tories are on the side of 'hard-working, decent, patriotic people'."

He adds:

“It’s not about being Left-wing or Right-wing – it’s about being where the British people are. The right thing to do is to address the things people care about; to fix yourself firmly in what Keith Joseph [the late Conservative thinker and key political ally of Baroness Thatcher] called the 'common ground’ of politics.'"

Not sure that the late Joseph himself was ever on that 'common ground' but anyways...

Meanwhile, the Observer reports that "David Cameron is to convene a series of meetings with backbench Tory MPs in the coming weeks in an attempt to head off the threat of a possible leadership challenge, amid rising concern in Conservative ranks that he lacks a convincing strategy to contain Nigel Farage's rampant UK Independence party".

One senior Tory tells the paper that "the party faces a 'devastating pincer movement' from Ukip in a string of marginal seats where Conservatives won in 2010 with narrow majorities over Labour: 'If more Tory votes are siphoned off to Ukip, and Lib Dems switch to Labour, we will be done for in those seats and our position in the north of England will be terrible. We need to address this urgently.'"

The Sun on Sunday reports:

"David Cameron was last night warned he must act to rebrand the Conservatives — or see them doomed just like bust music giant HMV.

"Tories reeling from the by-election disaster in Eastleigh likened the party to the outdated store chain and demanded a complete makeover.

"One said after the Lib Dems held on to the Hampshire seat and UKIP beat the Tories to second place: 'We’re in danger of becoming the political equivalent of HMV. We’re old-fashioned, our overheads are too high and our share of the market is declining fast.'”

As the Tories form a circular firing squad, the Lib Dems are sitting pretty. For once. And enjoying the Conservative meltdown, it seems. Party president Tim Farron told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme this morning that the Tories "must be tempted by us" to stay on the centre ground. Describing the Eastleigh result as a "game changer", Farron added that "it would be a very foolish thing for the Conservative party to lurch to the right".

2) HUMAN RIGHTS? FUGGEDABOUTIT

'A great day for British justice,' screams the splash headline on the front of the Mail on Sunday.

The paper reports:

"Britain is set to pull out of the discredited European Convention on Human Rights that has allowed dangerous criminals and hate preachers to remain in the UK.

"... The historic move, to be announced soon by Home Secretary Theresa May, would mean foreign courts could no longer meddle in British justice.

"The European Convention has led to such hugely controversial decisions as banning the deportation of radical cleric Abu Qatada and giving British prisoners the right to vote.

"Mrs May’s bold proposals to include the move in the next Tory Election manifesto reflect the party’s growing hostility towards Europe. If enacted, her policy would leave British judges free to interpret the law without interference from the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)."

Lurch to the right? What lurch to the right?

3) END OF THE 'GLOBAL HEALTH SERVICE'?

From the Sunday Times:

"David Cameron is preparing to limit the access of immigrants to free healthcare amid concerns the NHS is being abused by new arrivals and turned into a 'global health service'.

"The government clampdown will be seen as a response to a surge in support for UKIP at the Eastleigh by-election and accusations by Tory MPs that Cameron has failed to get a grip on immigration and the burgeoning cost of new arrivals.

"In a 'profound' shake-up, ministers are considering making immigrants wait for up to a year before being able to seek hospital care including operations but excluding emergency and antenatal care.

Lurch to the right? What lurch to the right?

4) OR END OF THE 'NATIONAL' HEALTH SERVICE?

Another NHS story - this time it's the splash on the front of the Observer:

"Britain's leading medical body has expressed grave concern that the government is planning to privatise large sections of the NHS by stealth – in breach of previous promises to doctors to limit the role of the private sector.

"In an explosive letter to the health minister Lord Howe, leaked to the Observer, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges says that ministers appear to have reneged on previous agreements with the profession, by attempting to force through parliament new rules that would greatly expand the role of private operators across the NHS.

"... The row threatens to cause fresh tension within the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, newly assertive after their victory in Thursday's Eastleigh by-election and keen to avoid charges that they are backing covert privatisation, who suggestedthat they wanted the academy's concerns to be addressed."

The Independent on Sunday, meanwhile, splashes on how "patients will be put at risk by privatised out-of-hours care, according to a GP and former clinical lead for Harmoni, the largest independent provider of urgent care services in England, after its doctors were criticised last week in an inquest over the death of a baby boy".

5) WAR ON THE WHISPERERS

'Friends' of Lord Rennard have been queueing up to tell the Independent on Sunday that their man is a fine, upstanding member of the community; it's all a conspiracy against him, you see...

From the Sindy:

"Liberal Democrat grandee Lord Rennard believes he has been the victim of a 'whispering campaign' by former colleagues with a grudge against the party leadership, it was claimed yesterday.

"A senior ally of the beleaguered peer, accused of 'sexually inappropriate behaviour' by female Lib Dems, says the former chief executive could have 'overstepped the mark' in some of his dealings with female party members. 'There are people who have a history of feuding with Chris Rennard [holding] a very spiteful vendetta against him in a very personal way,' he told The Independent on Sunday.

"'They must have thought all their Christmases had come at once when Channel 4 did that programme [about the allegations]. But the idea of him as a 'predatory sex pest' is laughable.'

The paper quotes Elizabeth Jewkes, founder member of Women Liberal Democrats, as saying: "I have met Chris Rennard on numerous occasions over the years, yet I have never experienced any of his alleged behaviour and, more importantly, as a woman who has spent years mentoring other women and encouraging them to stand for Parliament, I have never even heard the slightest rumour of these allegations."

Meanwhile, the People reports that Rennard "was last night waiting to hear if the police will take action against him.

"Former party activist Alison Smith alleged he behaved in a sexually inappropriate way and reported it to officers."

"... Scotland Yard said: 'We are working with the Lib Dem party to ascertain if any criminal activity has taken place.'"

Lord Rennard continues to deny all the allegations against him.

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of 'Everything Wrong With Skyfall In Four Minutes Or Less'.

6) YOU BRITS ARE BULLIES, SAYS... BRUTAL DICTATOR

Will we ever see any light at the end of the blood-stained Syrian tunnel? From the front of today's Sunday Times:

"Bashar al Assad has offered to hold peace talks with Syrian rebels to resolve a two-year conflict that has killed an estimated 70,000 people.

"'We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms,' the Syrian president said in an interview with The Sunday Times."

Speaking to Hala Jaber, in his first interview with a western newspaper for more than a year, the brutal dictator in Damascus also accused Britain of..wait for it... "bullying":

"To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries... The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony...

"How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem?"

He might have blood on his hands but, annoyingly, he makes a fair point - and the foreign secretary William Hague appeared on the Marr programme to say that we "have to do more to help the Syrian opposition on the ground" and that he wouldn't "rule out" the option of sending arms to the rebels at some point in the not-too-distant future. He did, however, add that "the risk of arms falling into the wrong hands is one of the restraints" that the west faces.

7) 'WE'RE ALL EARS'

Here's more evidence that the Lib Dems, secure, ebullient and confident after their victory in Eastleigh, may be up for doing a coalition-undermining deal with Labour on the 'mansion tax'. Asked on the BBC's Marr programme whether his party would join Her Majesty's Opposition in voting for a new levy on £2m houses, Lib Dem president Tim Farron said that Lib Dems often treat opposition day debates as "the mischief that they are", before adding: "Sometimes you have to look at things at face value. We'll see... We're all ears."

8) BLAIR BACKS HEIR

Fresh from his Newsnight defence of the Iraq war, our former PM has decided to remind voters of one of his more, ahem, morally-admirable legacies - from the Observer:

"Tony Blair has launched a fierce defence of the UK's overseas aid budget and backs David Cameron against critics who are pressing him to slash the government's funding commitments.

"As Britain prepares to host the G8 summit this summer at Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, Blair writes in the Observer about the last meeting of the developed nations to be held in the UK – the Gleneagles summit in 2005 – which focused on Africa. He argues that 'the positive legacy of that summit is still echoing across Africa: aid was doubled and third world debt dropped.'"

9) REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENS WHEN AMERICA SNEEZES?

From the Observer:

"Barack Obama warned on Saturday of a 'ripple effect' through the US economy that would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs after he reluctantly signed an order to begin a huge $85bn (£56bn) programme of government cuts.

"The president even called the act 'not smart' on the morning after the cuts officially became government policy, in a move that has been dubbed "sequestration" and has plunged Washington into another political crisis.

"'The pain will be real. Many middle-class families will have their lives disrupted in a significant way,' Obama said in his weekly address. He added that up to 750,000 jobs could be lost and half a percentage point knocked off America's economic growth this year. 'This will cause a ripple effect across the economy. Businesses will suffer because customers will have less money to spend ... These cuts are not smart. They will hurt our economy and cost us jobs,' he said.

"The sequester originates in a political crisis in 2011, when debates over deficit reduction almost saw the US government default on its debt payments. To avert that crisis, Democrats and Republicans agreed that, unless they struck a deal on shrinking the country's debt, then the cuts to federal spending would begin."

My own piece on the sequester for the Huffington Post site in the US, "As Sequester Looms, U.S. Set To Repeat Europe's Austerity Mistake", is here.

10) GOODBYE TO MR MARLBORO?

Gotcha! The 'gangster-jihadist', nicknamed 'Mr Marlboro' for his role in cigarette smuggling in the north of Africa, is now dead, it's been claimed.

From the Independent on Sunday:

"The 'uncatchable' al-Qa'ida commander who masterminded a bloody mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant that claimed the lives of six British nationals has been killed by African soldiers, it was reported last night.

"Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the seizure of dozens of foreign hostages at the In Amenas plant in January, where more than 60 people died.

"Chadian military chiefs announced on state TV last night that he was one of several terrorist killed in an attack on a northern Mali mountain base... If true, Belmokhtar's death would be a major blow to Islamist rebels in northern Mali who have been pushed back into their mountain strongholds by French and African forces."

'If true' is probably the key bit in this report...

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sunday Times/YouGov poll:

Labour 42
Conservatives 31
Ukip 11
Lib Dems 10

That would give Labour a majority of 116.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@Mike_Fabricant The irony is that many of the appealing policies promoted by UKIP are already Conservative ones, but ppl don't realise this because...

@Mike_Fabricant ...of mixed messaging.

@MirrorJames Said it before but David Cameron's attempt to head off UKIP reminds me of Blair trying devolution to see off the Nats

@TimGattITV So @thesundaytimes' Atticus column talks about Tony Blair being 500/1 to be the next Pope - but not my far better 100/1 odds. #PopeIdol

900 WORDS OR MORE

Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Observer, says: "The Tories should now know you don't beat Ukip by copying them."

John Rentoul, writing in the Independent on Sunday, says: "As ever, Tony Blair is David Cameron's guide."

Matthew D'Ancona, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, says: "The PM can still win, but it might have to get personal."

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