The ten things you need to know on Tuesday 8th January 2013...
1) DAVE WON'T WIN
Last March, I penned a column which was entitled: "Why the odds are against a Tory majority."
Almost a year later, I can't help but notice that some shrewd Tory politicians are lining up to agree with me. Former Tory MP Paul Goodman wrote last week: "Two years out from 2015, one fact is already evident: David Cameron will not win an overall majority."
Today, the influential Tory peer and pollster Michael Ashcroft joins the fray. From the Huffington Post UK:
"David Cameron's chances of winning the next election are 'remote', top Tory donor and election strategist Lord Ashcroft has warned.
"Writing on the ConservativeHome website this morning, the former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party cited bookmakers' views that an overall majority for Labour is the most likely result in May 2015.
"'With the polls as they are, and political prospects as they currently seem, it would be hard to argue that the bookmakers are seriously misguided. Any realistic survey of the political landscape surely shows the odds are against the Tories metaphorically as well as literally,' he said.
"Ashcroft added: 'The odds on a Conservative majority look comparatively remote.'
"The peer concludes that the combination of traditional Labour voters and disaffected Lib Dems means Ed Miliband 'ought to be able to put together 40 per cent of the vote without getting out of bed' at the next election."
"Without getting out of bed"? Uh-oh.
2) DIVIDE AND RULE
Ahead of today's Commons vote - on the below-inflation 1% rise in benefits and tax credits announced in George Osborne's Autumn Statement last month - the Guardian splashes on Nick Clegg's attack on "Conservative efforts to single out the 'undeserving' poor":
"With the debate over welfare savings likely to form one of the central political battlegrounds of 2013, the deputy prime minister, speaking at a joint press conference with David Cameron at Downing Street, said: 'I don't think it helps at all to try and portray that decision as one that divides one set of people against another, the deserving and the undeserving poor, people in work and out of work.'
"It is understood Clegg is also involved in a backstage battle on how to ensure that coalition plans for childcare will particularly help the working poor, rather than offer reliefs to the middle class.
"... In a sign that the Lib Dem indiscipline may spread to the Commons as the pressure of the election nears, the former children's minister Sarah Teather announced she would be rebelling in Tuesday's vote to formally break the link between benefits and inflation."
As the FT's Jim Pickard observed on Twitter: "Anyone would think Teather has a tiny majority in a not very affluent London seat."
Meanwhile, Labour MPs will be delighed to see the latest report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. From the Telegraph:
"Seven million working families will lose money under Coalition plans to cut the value of benefits payments, economists have estimated.
"The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that the changes set out in legislation to be debated in the Commons today will affect far more working households than workless ones.
"... The average loss will be £165 per year, the IFS calculated."
My own take - "Strivers vs Shirkers? Ten Things They Don't Tell You About the Welfare Budget" - is published online here.
Oh, and Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has just been on the Today programme, defending the 1% squeeze on benefits and tax credits and claiming no benefit claimants have been "demonised" on his "watch". Er, okay...
3) RONSEALED WITH A RESIGNATION
Downing Street spin doctors won't be too pleased with this morning's headlines, in the wake of yesterday's Dave&Nick show in Number 10.
The FT front page headline reads:
"Strains crack coalition show of unity"
The Times front page headline reads:
"Coalition heads for new rift as Tory quits Cabinet"
The paper reports:
"David Cameron is ready to open a new split with Nick Clegg over Tory-friendly boundary changes, as a departing Cabinet minister laid bare the tensions at the top of the coalition.
"Lord Strathclyde, who resigned as Leader of the House of Lords yesterday, conceded that his 'irritation' with the Liberal Democats had prompted him to complain that the coalition in the Upper House was broken. He also criticised Mr Clegg for changing his mind on the boundary review, an issue over which he feels betrayed by the Lib Dems, The Times understands.
"Mr Cameron signalled yesterday that he was ready to confront Mr Clegg again over the issue. The Prime Minister regards it as very much alive, despite Lib Dem efforts to kill it off."
As for the actual 'performance' delivered by the two men inside their wood-panelled room in Number 10, well, to be blunt, it was pretty dull - and the sketchwriters weren't particularly impressed, either. Writing in the Times, Ann Treneman picks up on the PM's bizarre analogy ("To me it's not a marriage," he told reporters, "it is, if you like, it's a Ronseal deal, it does what it says on the tin"):
"Nick's face had that expression that married couples will recognise as one of carefully constructed blankness. Dave had just compared their relationship — the most powerful crucial relationship in the nation — to a tin of wood preserver. Surely this took winter gardening tasks, not to mention product placement, to an entirely new realm. After all, what Ronseal Shed and Fence Preserver actually says on the tin is: 'Colours, Waterproofs and Preserves Against Rot and Decay.' It says nothing about boundary changes and House of Lords reform."
Writing in the Mail, Quentin Letts says:
"As a work of drama, the two men gave performances that were controlled rather than inspiring.
"It was really just a PR exercise, something to stick in the Downing Street diary, something they could all point to when asked, on getting home to their better halves, 'so what did you do today, dear?' Was it perchance a little flat? Possibly. As flat as publican's ullage? Less fizzy than week-old taramasalata? That might be a touch harsh."
But here's a question: why on earth did David Cameron allow Lord Strathclyde, the veteran leader of the Tories in the Lords, to announce his resignation from the Cabinet on the same day that the coalition was doing its very public self-assessment? Where's Andy Coulson when you need him, eh?
The Independent's splash headline sums it up:
"Resignation of top Tory lord leaves a stain on PM's 'Ronseal' relaunch"
4) DEBATING DAVE
So what else did we discover from the Downing Street presser? My colleague Ned Simons reports:
"David Cameron has insisted he is in favour of TV election debates, but refused to commit himself to taking part in 2015.
"Speaking at a joint press conference in Downing Street on Monday, Cameron was challenged over whether he would sign up to the head-to-head clashes at the next election.
"'On TV debates, I'm in favour of them, I think they are good and I think we should go on having them, and I will play my part in trying to make that happen,' he said."
There's a simple solution that would force Dave to commit to participating in pre-election debates with Clegg and Miliband in 2015 - the broadcasters should just threaten to replace him with Nigel Farage.
5) 'CALL CLEGG'
Forget TV debates - talk radio is what it's all about. Nick Clegg's decision to moonlight as a 'presenter' on LBC has upset the Sun:
"The Deputy PM stunned Westminster by announcing he will appear on Call Clegg every Thursday morning.
"Critics branded the decision a desperate attempt by the Lib Dem leader to win back voters.
"Some Lib Dems fear the show is a gamble that could backfire, with Mr Clegg facing a torrent of abusive calls.
"The new half-hour slot at 9am will be part of Nick Ferrari's morning show on LBC and will be aired across London — and online for other parts of the country."
Set your alarm clocks!
BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this video of 'Hard of Hearing' Darth Vader, the rather wonderful creation of comedy writer Jon Friedman.
6) TORTURE? THAT'S OLD NEWS
Yesterday, this Memo reported on the row in the United States over President Obama's decision to nominate Vietnam veteran and former two-term Republican senator Chuck Hagel to be his new defence secretary. The neoconservatives in Washington DC don't like the fact that the plain-speaking and independent-minded Hagel doesn't seem too keen on bombing Iran or giving a pass to Israel in the occupied territories.
So shouldn't the real 'row' be over Obama's other national-security team nomination? The decision to nominate the torture-tainted White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan - also the architect of Obama's drone policy - to be the new director of the CIA?
The Guardian reports:
"To replace the disgraced general David Petraeus at the CIA, Obama picked his counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan. That choice attracted criticism because of Brennan's involvement with the Bush administration's backing for harsh interrogation techniques that many have described as torture, although Brennan denies he supported their use."
The FT adds:
"Mr Brennan's tenure at the agency during Mr Bush's presidency drew criticism from liberals when Mr Obama considered naming him CIA director after the 2008 election. Mr Brennan denied being involved in the Bush administration''s much-criticised interrogation techniques but still withdrew his name from consideration."
Yet the paper concludes:
"White House officials say they do not expect Mr Brennan to face similar trouble this time, given his four years of service in the Obama administration."
Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald makes the case against Brennan, and reminds us of his actual record, here.
7) AUSTERITY WATCH, PART 412
"Downing Street was accused of playing politics with soldiers’ jobs last night, as commanders voiced fears that thousands of Army redundancies were leaving critical roles unfilled.
:Documents seen by The Times show how No 10 has leant on military chiefs to accept voluntary rather than compulsory redundancies when 5,000 posts are due to be cut this month.
8) PLEBGATE VS...ORDINARY CRIMES?
Is the Met's investigation into the 'Plebgate' row distracting the police from tackling more mainstream crimes? That seems to be a real concern for the Home Affairs select committee chair.
From the Mirror:
"An MP yesterday raised concerns over the number of police working on specialist operations — including the 'Plebgate' investigation.
"Home Affairs Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz asked Theresa May if the Met had enough people to deal with 'bread and butter' policing in London.
"Last week The Mirror revealed how more than 800 diplomatic protection group officers will be quizzed about Andrew Mitchell's 'pleb' row.
Later today, the committee will grill Met commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe on Mitchell, plebs and the Downing Street coppers. Watch this space.
9) 'WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER'
"The boss of an energy giant that has doubled its prices in just seven years could pocket a £13million payoff.
"Phil Bentley, who is to leave British Gas within months, has presided over above-inflation hikes that have pushed average bills past £1,300 a year.
"The latest punishing rise of 6 per cent comes as millions endure the greatest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s."
10) SORRELL'S STRIKER
"Ronaldo, the World Cup winner and highest scorer in the tournament's history after spells at Inter and AC Milan as well as Real Madrid, plans to spend several months in London from next month studying advertising at the global ad firm WPP, run by Sir Martin Sorrell. He retired from football in 2011.
"'Eighteen years have passed and I've hardly studied at all; I feel a great need to become a student again,' Ronaldo told Brazil's Meio & Mensagem newspaper. 'I've learned a lot in life, travelling, living abroad, just in the school of life. But I also have to immerse myself in something.
"'Learning from Martin Sorrell will be perfect. I won't leave him alone, I'll be asking him questions the whole day, just like a striker. He's going to have to tell me everything.'"
You wouldn't want to take on WPP's lunchtime five-a-side team from now on, would you?
PUBLIC OPINION WATCH
From the Sun/YouGov poll:
Lib Dems 11
That would give Labour a majority of 96.
140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
@PickardJE Coalition mid-term review. 75 per cent what they've done; 20 per cent what we already knew they said they would do next. 5 per cent new-ish
@Labourpaul The 'Ronseal deal' line is all over the media - but was it scripted or an ad lib?
@PeterHain Labour voting tonight against cuts of up to £1300 for 4.6m women, half working. Two thirds hit by tax credit and benefit cuts are women
900 WORDS OR MORE
Rachel Sylvester, writing in the Times, says: "The austerity Government’s pledge to do what it says on the tin beyond 2015 shifts the centre of political gravity."
Steve Richards, writing in the Independent, says: "Forward, say Cameron and Clegg. But to where?"
Aditya Chakrabortty, writing in the Guardian, produces an "obituary" for the welfare state: "After decades of public illness, Beveridge's most famous offspring has died."
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