Here are the five things you need to know on Wednesday 19 March 2014...
1) GEORGE'S BIG BUDGET DAY
Today, at 12:30pm, the chancellor of the exchequer will stand up in the Commons to deliver the penultimate Budget before May 2015's general election. And make no mistake: it will, once again, be a very political budget from a very political chancellor. The Sun says today's Budget "is the most vital of George Osborne's life... This is the Chancellor's last big chance to appeal to working-class voters before next year's election. The economy is finally on the up... Osborne must cement the feelgood factor and hope it pays off at the ballot box." The paper reports:
"George Osborne will unveil a plan today to exempt all 999 heroes from inheritance tax if they die while in the line of duty. The Chancellor wants to free the estates of police officers, firefighters and ambulance crews... Mr Osborne's fifth Budget will be his most blue collarfriendly, Whitehall insiders said last night. He may also offer a £100 a year income tax cut for lower and middle earners when he raises the personal allowance threshold to £10,500 — the Coalition's flagship tax policy. But he will also spark fury among some Tory MPs when he refuses a tax break for better earners — which a YouGov poll for the Sun yesterday found only 13 per cent of voters want."
The chancellor's other moves expected to be announced today include an exact figure on his proposed cap on overall welfare spending and a new, revved-up house-building package. But will there be any other, bigger rabbits in his hat? What traps will he be setting for Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has to respond to the Budget on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition? The BBC's Norman Smith tweets a Downing Street source saying: "There are significant things in the budget which have not been revealed." Ah, the mystery!
On a macro level, Osborne, of course, will be keen to tell us how well the economy is doing, in terms of growth, unemployment and inflation, and will be saying the words "long-term economic plan" and "economic recovery" as many times as he can. Yet, as the HuffPost UK's Asa Bennett points out, the chancellor in 2010 pledged to balance the budget by 2015, protect our triple-A credit rating, have debt falling as a proportion of GDP and oversee growth of 8 per cent by now - and he has broken every single one of those pledges. Meanwhile, the Times reports that "low interest rates are putting the economy in danger from excessive borrowing and creating conditions with similar risks to those that caused the 2008 financial crisis", according to the Governor of the Bank of England yesterday.
Asa also speaks to young jobseekers and small businessmen about how they're failing to feel the economic recovery in their own daily lives. As 21-year-old Roisin Caird tells Asa: "I'm not left with a lot of faith in [Osborne]. Not unless there's a total change of human being on the day."
Check out the HuffPost UK later this morning for our Budget 2014 live blog. Ned Simons also has a post on everything you need to know about the Budget, past and present (when did it all begin? What was the longest ever speech?) while Chris York considers 8 events which could overshadow Osborne's afternoon (what if they find the missing Malaysian Airlines plane today? What if the chancellor's cough returns?).
2) THE POUND COIN'S MAKEOVER
It isn't just how the money will be spent as a result of today's Budget that interests the papers - but what the money will look like. From the Mail's splash:
"The £1 coin is to be scrapped in favour of a 12-sided replacement modelled on the old threepenny bit. George Osborne took a two-coloured prototype to Buckingham Palace last night to show to the Queen. The Chancellor will use today’s Budget to announce that the switchover will start in 2017. Ministers say urgent action is needed to combat the number of counterfeits in circulation. Designers claim the new coin will be the hardest to copy in the world. In a nod to Britain’s heritage, it is the same shape as the 12-sided threepenny or ‘thrupenny’ bit, which was in circulation from 1937 until decimalisation in 1971."
3) 'UKRAINE ON WAR FOOTING'
That's the splash headline on the front of the Times, which reports:
"The Crimea crisis is threatening to escalate out of control after a Ukrainian soldier was shot dead within hours of President Putin stoking fears of a new Cold War. Ukraine moved on to a war footing yesterday, blaming Russia for the first casualty of the conflict and authorising its troops in the peninsula to use their weapons for self-protection. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the country's Prime Minister, told an emergency government meeting in Kiev that Ukraine's stand-off with Russia was now 'shifting from a political to a military stage'."
Was yesterday the moment the Third World War began? Or the Second Cold War? Or can the crisis still be resolved diplomatically?
The Guardian splashes on Vladimir Putin's "hour-long speech in the Kremlin" yesterday, announcing his decision to annex Crimea, and "shot through with angry rhetoric". The Russian president "said western politicians 'call something white today and black tomorrow' and aired a long list of foreign policy grievances going back to 2000, saying 'we were cheated again and again, with decisions being taken behind our back'."
Meanwhile, the BBC is reporting this morning that "Russia has told the US that Western sanctions over the Crimea dispute are unacceptable, and has threatened 'consequences'. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued the warning in a telephone call to US Secretary of State John Kerry."
BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this hilarious 'Yes Prime Minister' clip from 1986 which could totally apply to the current crisis in Crimea...
4) THE NSA'S 'TIME MACHINE'?
I never cease to be amazed by the (ongoing) revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The latest is a doozy - the Washington Post reports:
"The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording '100 percent' of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden. A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance... At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned."
5) FIRST MAGGIE, NOW TONY
From the Guardian:
"Tony Benn is likely to become only the second politician – after Margaret Thatcher – whose remains will have rested in Parliament's chapel of St Mary Undercroft on the eve of the funeral. Permission for the use of the gothic chapel inside the Palace of Westminster is being sought from the Queen following a suggestion to Benn's family by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow."
Oh, the irony...
PUBLIC OPINION WATCH
From the Sun/YouGov poll:
Lib Dems 11
That would give Labour a majority of 44.
900 WORDS OR MORE
Daniel Finkelstein, writing in the Times, says: "The Budget is just a gimmick. So let’s ditch it."
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, says: "George Osborne, it's not your job to look after the very rich."
Mary Dejevsky, writing in the Independent, says: "President Putin finds his legacy in the fallout from Crimea."
Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Ned Simons (email@example.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol