The five things you need to know on Monday March 14, 2016…
1) SAVINGS CRAVING
In case you missed it, it’s Budget week. The small-scale nature of the pre-briefed items so far suggests either some kind of rabbit is being held back or it really will be a risk-minimising, cuts-led announcement aimed at shoring up George Osborne’s support within his party.
The PM’s giving him a helping hand today with another micro measure (in fiscal terms), to boost savings of the low paid (though Labour suggest it sounds a bit like the Savings Gateway the Coalition scrapped in 2010). There’s Whitehall chatter that while he’s retreated on pensions tax relief, some kind of savings/pensions narrative has been rescued. My colleague Owen Bennett reported on Friday night that plans for a new ‘lifetime ISA’ plan were very much alive.
Yet the big picture is the black hole in the finances that the FT pointed to this weekend, and Osborne’s confirmation on Marr that he will seek ‘further savings’, “equivalent to 50p in every £100”. Of course, that overall statistic is pretty misleading if you’re the target for the cuts in specific departments The IFS’s Paul Johnson has pointed out that it really means upto 3% cuts in unprotected spending areas. Will the cuts amount to £4bn or more? Osborne struggled to defend disability cuts.
The FT has a rather strong hostage-to-fortune header that he’s ‘expected’ to jack up fuel duty. We have a story that Osborne’s previous fuel duty moves cost the Treasury £30 billion yet made little difference to the pump price in practice. Speaking of motorists, the insurance industry has been warning that Osborne could stage another ‘stealth tax’ raid on our motor and homes insurance by jacking up Insurance Premiums Tax (IPT), after the last hike was buried in the tax credits row. Business worries about the apprentice levy going up again. Both could raise serious sums.
The FT suggests another source of income, with plans to target multinationals’ tax relief on debt interest. Ah, remember all those ‘Google tax’ headlines…?
2) CALM DOWN, FEAR
Tom Watson has told all sides of the Labour party to ‘calm down’ amid intense speculation that there could be a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership this summer. On SkyNews’s Murnaghan, the deputy Labour leader was tried to pull the party together ahead of these crucial May elections.
Watson put his finger on just why some on the Left were wrong to push for a change in the leadership rules this July - pointing out it would give the ‘moderates’ the excuse they need to act before it was too late. “There are people in the party who are trying to change the rules in order to try and protect Jeremy’s position - and they might just be precipitating a challenge to his leadership because of that.” The Left counters that the ‘moderates’ don’t seem to need any excuse to try to get rid of Corbyn.
But last week’s speeches by Rachel Reeves, Dan Jarvis (and don’t forget Chris Leslie did one too), were certainly seen as tanks on Corbyn’s lawn by some around the leadership. On Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night, Reeves confirmed she’d turned down the chance to join McDonnell’s council of economic advisers. And she said something that caught my ear. When asked if a leadership challenge was brewing, she didn’t directly deny that one was, saying only: “That’s not what these speeches are about”.
It was interesting the way some of the party mobilised on Saturday to defend Jarvis from Ken’s ‘Savile’ attack. NEC member Johanna Baxter wrote to Ken demanding an apology, so too did Martin Taylor, the hedge fund manager who has donated to Jarvis’s office. And most damaging was ITV’s scoop that the ex-Mayor had himself trousered £8k from a hedge fund. This one will run and run.
3) BOZ, ACTUALLY
Boris is earning is corn for the Telegraph and his new column today attacking Obama’s ‘hypocrisy’ over Brexit gifts the paper a splash. Is it Boris’s ‘Love Actually’ moment, a plucky Brit standing up to a bullying US President? Well, for one thing PM Boris and President Obama are highly unlikely to overlap - unless David Cameron is forced out by the end of this year.
What’s more worrying for the Leave camp is that many of them are Atlanticists and Obama is saying clearly that it’s better for the Anglo-Saxon-American economic model (as opposed to the European model) if their common values are embedded in the EU, not ripped out of it. Meanwhile, Jeremy Clarkson’s Sunday Times column calling for a United States of Europe (no, really) was certainly counterintuitive.
The Guardian has a bit of blue on blue action with an advance on a BBC interview where Steve Hilton has a pop at Boris, claiming he has little legacy from his time as Mayor, and praising Ken for doing more on transport.
George Osborne on Marr was withering about Boris for ‘playing games’ over the EU referendum. And asked if Bojo wanted to be PM, he said: “I don’t think it is the greatest revelation in human history to discover that Boris Johnson is interested in a job in government.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Marco Rubio sound genuinely worried about Trump. He's been called a robot, but it was possibly his most human moment of the entire campaign.
4) JUAN DIRECTION
The row over the leak of the Queen’s views on Brussels rumbles on. The Sun has a new angle today that Her Majesty’s ‘wrong direction’ outburst at the 2011 lunch in Windsor was prompted by Nick Clegg ‘preaching on the virtues of Europe’.
One Royal sources tells the paper: “She threw a wobbly and responded witheringly. Most people know that’s a signal to retreat and concentrate on the soup. Unfortunately, he ploughed on, raising her blood pressure further.” Some Tories used to jibe privately that Clegg's Spanish connections (his wife, his speaking the language fluently) made him a 'Don Juan' for Brussels integration.
But pressure continues on Michael Gove, the prime suspect for the leaked conversation. The Justice Secretary, on a Brexit campaign visit on Saturday, twice used a very specific form of words: “I don’t know how the Sun got all of its information.” That word ‘all’ has been pounced on as a hint that he was one of the sources. His office says he didn’t ‘brief’ the story, but did he reveal the Queen’s words to anyone? Will he have to properly answer such questions in Parliament or in a TV interview? Nick Soames was swift on Twitter to spot the crack in the defence of the wild ‘Gover’. “Is the Gover now owning up to an inexcusable mistake in breaching an oath and a confidence? If so now VERY serious.”
Tom Watson has urged him to come clean and stop the obfuscation. Alastair Campbell said the Brexit angle was “cock” because otherwise there would not have been a Palace complaint.
At least the David Laws memoirs show the Queen has a sense of humour. Asked by Clegg if his plans to give female Royals equal rights to succession would cause the Palace a problem, Her Maj replied: “Good grief, Mr Clegg, by then, I’ll be dead!"
5) MUTTI IN THEIR HANDS
The regional elections in Germany have prompted many papers to raise the spectre of the rise of the rightwing, anti-immigrant party AfD. Brexiters over here will be wary of being linked to the AfD’s increasing popularity - it is utterly anti-euro, after all. Yet although Merkel’s CDU did badly, the picture is more complicated given ruling parties always tend to do badly mid-term.
Polls showed that most Germans still like Merkel’s approach to refugees, and as the Wall St Journal points out at the ballot box several pro-refugee politicians beat Merkel critics in her own party (the Greens did well in Baden-Württemberg). Some German papers are saying it’s a ‘nightmare’ for Merkel but other media in the country say ‘She’s won’ overall. The SPD did worst in some areas.
As for Merkel’s CDU, one of its politicians Erika Steinbach, tweeted about the ‘dictator’ approach of Berlin on refugees. Ironic, or what? Then again, Steinback last month tweeted a pic of a blond child surrounded by Asian women, with the caption ‘Where are you from then? Germany, 2030’.
The EU migrant deal with Turkey is looking in trouble. I wonder if at this week’s Brussels summit David Cameron will expand on George Osborne’s ‘veto’ warning about its accession?
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