POLITICS

Mehdi's Morning Memo: Osborne Hides Behind Shapps

23/03/2014 10:05 GMT | Updated 23/03/2014 10:59 GMT
PA/PA Wire
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne laughs as Labour party leader Ed Miliband responds to his Budget statement to the House of Commons, London.

Here are the five things you need to know on Sunday 23 March 2014...

1) OSBORNE HIDES BEHIND SHAPPS

Well, well, well. It wasn't Grant, it was George. The Tory chairman took a bullet on behalf of the chancellor of the exchequer earlier this week, when he took the blame for that awful, patronising Conservative Party poster on beer, bingo and 'hardworking' people. As Iain Martin reveals in the Sunday Telegraph:

"The controversial post-Budget bingo 'poster' blamed on Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, was designed in the Treasury and signed off by the Chancellor. After the advertisement highlighting cuts to bingo tax and beer duty was issued it was called a condescending public relations disaster and there were calls for Mr Shapps to be sacked. But according to Tory MPs, appalled that the party chairman was forced to take the blame, it was approved at the highest level and George Osborne was enthusiastic about it... The 'poster', which was in fact designed purely as a piece of online advertising, was devised on Wednesday when a small team from Tory headquarters was allowed into the Treasury to work on the political message with the Chancellor's aides. It was signed off by Mr Osborne as well as Lynton Crosby, the Tory election strategist, and by Stephen Gilbert, the Prime Minister's political secretary."

2) 'NECK AND NECK'

From the Sunday Times splash:

"The Tories are neck-and-neck with Labour after a postbudget poll bounce, prompting senior figures to urge Ed Miliband to sharpen his policies and stop speaking like a 'Hampstead academic'. Today's YouGov poll for The Sunday Times puts the Conservatives on 36%, just one point behind the opposition, the smallest margin in five months, with chancellor George Osborne's personal approval ratings surging. Positive reaction to last week's budget has helped the Tories force down Labour's lead and has raised the party's hopes it could even win an outright majority. This weekend, the polling caused alarm among senior Labour figures. They urged Miliband to stop 'trying to be too clever' and devise 'understandable' policies in the style of Tony Blair."

The "senior figures" quoted in the Sunday Times include Labour backbencher John Mann MP, former Labour junior minister-turned-police-commissioner Vera Baird and Labour peer Lord Knight - none of these individuals are "senior figures", let alone household names.

That said, the poll doesn't look good for Labour - and nor does the Mail on Sunday's Survation poll, which also shows the Labour lead at 1 percentage point (35% to 34%). A few questions worth considering, however: 1) to what extent are these 'rogue' polls? Outliers, inconsistent with the 4 or 5% lead Labour has enjoyed for the past year?; 2) are these polls merely reflecting a post-Budget 'bounce'?; and 3) are Labour's critics aware that even a 1% lead come May 2015 would deliver Ed Miliband and co a Commons majority of 8 seats?

3) WILLIE VS VLAD

Foreign Secretary William Hague has a message for Russian President Vladimir Putin: we're not scared of you. Okay? OKAY?

Hague's written an op-ed in the Sunday Telegraph, in which he says:

"We have never given up on diplomacy or sought confrontation. But nor should European nations run scared before bullying behaviour. Sadly, we and our allies must be prepared to contemplate a new state of relations with Russia that would involve Russia being outside some international organisations, facing lasting restrictions on military cooperation and arms sales, and having less influence over the rest of Europe."

The foreign secretary adds: "Russia loses even more than turning the Ukrainian people against Moscow. As things stand today, the arc of Russia's path in world affairs risks once again bending towards isolation."

You can read my latest column, having a go at Hague's - and John Kerry's! - hypocrisy on Russia and Ukraine here.

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this funny video of how to learn to pronounce Beyonce's name in just 8 seconds.

4) STOP OBSESSING OVER IMMIGRATION

Are the non-swivel-eyed Tories starting to fight back? Not just on Europe, but on immigration too. This Sunday Times story suggests they may be:

"Modernisers in the Conservative party are to begin a fightback against anti-immigration rightwingers, warning that its target of pushing net migration below 100,000 is arbitrary, damaging to the economy and "undeliverable". Conservatives for Managed Migration, which will be launched on Tuesday, warns that the two biggest parties, egged on by UKIP, have tried to outdo each other in tough rhetoric on immigration. The result, the group's founder believes, is that Tories appear to many outsiders to have a "near-obsession" with immigration and to be "fundamentally hostile" to those not born in Britain. The group, chaired by Mark Field, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, wants to remove barriers that stop businesses and universities bringing high-fliers to Britain... Field's campaign is the latest attempt to stop Tory policies being dragged to the right in advance of the European elections in May. Other groups have been launched by pro-European and green Conservative MPs."

5) 'MAKE YOUR MIND UP, GORDON'

That's the headline in the Mail on Sunday, which reports:

"He once described Gazza’s wonder goal against the Scots at Wembley as one of his favourite footballing memories. But Gordon Brown, who no longer courts the English vote, has now spoken of his heartbreak at watching Gary McAllister’s botched penalty for Scotland in that famous Euro ’96 match. In a plea to Scots to vote against independence in September’s referendum, the former Prime Minister said he ‘yields to no-one’ in his love of Scotland... His comments, made at an event in Perth where Labour is holding its annual Scottish conference, are a far cry from previous attempts to woo English sports fans when he was Chancellor and Prime Minister."

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 37

Conservatives 36

Ukip 11

Lib Dems 9

That would give Labour a majority of 8.

From the Mail on Sunday/Survation poll:

Labour 35

Conservatives 34

Ukip 15

Lib Dems 9

That would give Labour a majority of 4.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Will Hutton, writing in the Observer, says: "Osborne's pensions 'freedom' will be a long-term social disaster."

Matthew D'Ancona, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, says: "Osborne has marked the borders of Benefit Land."

Adam Boulton, writing in the Sunday Times, says: "Nick and Nigel hack at each other – but it’s the big boys who get hurt."

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