Tag Archives: Conservative

This week’s media picks

From a selection of media stories: Labour gives itself a little bit more definition. Do senior Tories think they will fail to win the next election? Here comes the Budget…

FT: Political risk rises high up the agenda in boardrooms

Business leaders are feeling under pressure on a range of political/policy issues, eg energy prices, immigration, Scottish independence, EU membership, the “debacle” over airport development, or the “complete failure to deal with planning”. As one FTSE chairman put it: “It is so difficult to know whether the rhetoric is reality.” (A perennial problem when it comes to politics.)

FT: City on alert for Labour’s political reckoning

Recent bank bonuses seem to have emboldened shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, to tolerate, or is that, promise, a bank bonus tax. Labour is hoping to raise up to £2 billion, which would be used to fund its job guarantee for the young jobless. This may harm Labour’s business credentials, but will it be a vote winner?

FT: Ed Miliband: Europe needs reform but Britain belongs at its heart

In a further attempt this week by Labour to define its political positioning, its leader, Ed Miliband outlined his stance on the EU. He committed Labour to holding an in-out referendum, were there to be a further transfer of powers from the UK to the EU, something which is unlikely in the next Parliament. He conceded that the EU’s reputation is at a low ebb, and that “if Britain’s future in Europe is to be secured, Europe needs to work better for Britain.” To this end, a Labour government would seek tougher EU rules on immigration and foreign benefits claimants.

Guardian: Have Boris, Gove and Osborne written off the 2015 election?

Conservative Home editor, and former Tory MP, Paul Goodman, argues that the outbreak of infighting among senior Tories over the future leadership of the party betrays a lack of confidence in David Cameron’s ability to pull off a majority election win in 2015. By contrast, whatever the views of senior Labour politicians on Ed Miliband’s leadership, they are doing a good job at keeping them private. The more that Conservatives ventilate their problems publicly, the more likely that they will help Ed Miliband win.

 

Daily Telegraph: Budget 2014 announcement: What to expect

George Osborne will deliver the 2014 Budget at 12.30 Wednesday March 19. Here are some of the things to look out for, not that any of this has been pre-briefed, of course…

A house divided can stand

Abraham Lincoln quoted scripture when he said of the young United States, as it faced threats of seccession by southern slave-owning states, that a divided house cannot stand. He went on to defeat these threats in the bloodiest war the United States has ever endured.

The British government doesn’t face quite the same existential threat, thankfully. But the steady occurrence of divisive political issues keeps raising the spectre of the Coalition’s collapse.

Yesterday in Parliament we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, statement opposing much of the Leveson report on the press, being starkly contradicted by his Deputy, Nick Clegg, who supports it. Also in Parliament yesterday, we saw the Lib Dem energy secretary, Ed Davey, present his battle-scarred Energy Bill, with his wind-sceptic Tory junior, John Hayes, sitting behind him, glowering supportively.

We’ve also had, recently, the unceremonious ditching by the Conservatives of Lords reform advocated by the Lib Dems. As an eye for an eye, the Lib Dems have said that they will oppose the re-drawing of Parliamentary boundary changes that would have benefited their coalition partners.

Opposition MPs’ criticism that Lib Dem ministers who can’t abide by collective responsibility should resign is an obvious debating point. This ignores the fact that it is in the nature of governments to set precedents. And with the first peacetime coalition formed purely as a result of Parliament being hung, the nature of the government itself is unprecedented.

The rules of collective responsibility have been re-written. There will no doubt be more intra-Coalition spats in the months to come, but none of them will bring down the Coalition until one, or both, parties decides that it’s time to pull down the temple.

The Coalition may eventually reach the point where it falls apart, but my hunch is that this won’t happen until well into 2014 at the earliest. The reason is that both parties are wedded to austerity and need to be able to demonstrate that it has worked. The economy will need to have returned clearly to growth, or be showing credible signs that it will do so. Only then can they face the electorate and be able to tell them that the pain has been worth it.

We will then face the delicious irony that as soon as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can demonstrate that the Coalition has been successful, they might then decide to terminate it. Quite what the electorate will make of that, we will have to wait and see.

Chancellor confirms nothing new under The Sun

On Wednesday, the Chancellor of the ExchequerGeorge Osborne, fulfilled his constitutional duty by confirming the past few weeks’ media speculation on what changes there should be to tax rates and allowances and how they would be funded. This is known as The Budget.

Each year beginning in early March, we avidly read the papers to see what lies in store for us and on Budget day, the Chancellor confirms that he has read them too.

Of course, Chancellors always mange to pull some rabbits out of the hat and catch us by surprise with a gleeful “tah-dah!” Although pensioners might be thinking that the freezing of their tax allowance looks more like a poisonous snake than a fluffy white rabbit. If this group of voters were less steadfast in their voting allegiances, it might have more of ta-ta effect. The self-same well-briefed papers seem to think so and have branded it straight away as “Granny Tax”.

Pre-briefing (or spinning, if you prefer) of the Budget is not new. We can speculate how hard Charlie WhelanEd Balls and Alastair Campbell worked in advance of Budgets to secure the headlines they wanted. And this year’s process has been amplified by the dynamics of coalition politics. The well-informed press speculation has partly been a reflection of the internal negotiation between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers on what should be in the Budget and each party’s determination to show that they managed to put their stamp on the final package.

Speculation on the content of Budgets is not new and has always been driven by a combination of journalistic competition, political gossip and in recent decades, by politicians’ determined efforts to “manage” the media’s coverage.

It doesn’t always work, of course, and according to the Chancellor, the reason he is getting such bad headlines on the “Granny Tax” is because it was “the bit of news people didn’t have”. Shadow Treasury minister, Chris Leslie has said that the leaks were a “serious breach” and an “insult” to Parliament.

Chris Leslie’s criticism won’t hurt George Osborne, but as a mark of how far the conduct of politics has changed, just look at what happened to Labour’s first post-war Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, as described in meticulous detail in the late Ben Pimlott’s masterful biography of him.

As Dalton passed through central lobby on his way to deliver his 1947 Budget, he whispered a few of the budget details to a journalist on the Star, a London evening paper. The grateful recipient was able to phone through to his news desk just in time to catch the old Stop Press or “fudge” section of the paper before the presses started rolling. A few thousand copies ran with the line on gambling: “There will also be a tax on dogs and football pools, but not on horse racing.” Minutes later, the sub-editors removed the “will” and toned it down to “Also likely to be…”

The offending tip off appeared on the streets just 20 minutes before Dalton actually spoke in no more than 260 copies that were sold on Fleet Street, Middle Temple Lane and at a bus stop near Aldwych. Competing newspapers noticed it, brought it to the attention of suitably outraged opposition MPs, and an urgent Commons question was tabled the next day. Dalton defended himself as best he could but tendered his resignation that evening, as he believed that “one must always own up”.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee, possibly for a variety of reasons, accepted Dalton’s resignation, but stressed that “the principle of the inviolability of the Budget is of the highest importance and the discretion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer […] must be beyond question”.

The days of the inviolability of the Budget are long gone, but that can also mean that Chancellors’ “tah-dah!” moments are not always of their own planning.

Boris throws a FIT

David Cameron must getting used to being sniped at by erstwhile allies. His Liberal Democrat coalition partners have made regular show of objecting to their own government’s plans on the NHS, tuition fees, repatriation of powers from the EU.

I suppose that comes with being in coalition. The junior partner will genuinely take a different view in some policy areas. It will also be looking to the next election and will feel the need to do something to preserve its vote. What better way than to set position yourself against particular policies, particularly if they are controversial.

This has also been Boris Johnson’s approach, almost since the moment he was first chosen as the Conservative Party candidate for London Mayor in September 2007. David Cameron, his nominal leader, acknowledged this when he launched his first mayoral election campaign, saying: “I don’t always agree with him, but I respect the fact that he’s absolutely his own man.”

Whether it was suggesting a one-off amnesty for illegal immigrants or proposing a new airport in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow, Johnson has frequently pursued his own unique policy lines. Some issues, like the future of Heathrow are a legitimate concern of the Mayor. Others, like the UK’s approach to the EU are, to say the least, stretching it a bit.

This week, he has been at it again. In a letter to the Chancellor that somehow found its way into the press, he threw a hissy fit (or is that a hissy FIT?) and attacked the Government’s decision to halve the feed-in tariff (FIT) for solar photovoltaic electricity. He argued that this will “slowly suffocate the growth that this policy has so far encouraged.” In his letter, he writes that “While the government will argue that the costs of solar panels have reduced, the costs of inverters, stands and labour have not.”

Boris Johnson’s intervention comes on the eve of a Labour Party opposition day debate on support for the solar industry in the Commons on Wednesday and a mass rally in Parliament today. Ministers will come under pressure to justify the cuts to FITs. The solar power sector will find some relief that such a senior figure in the Conservative Party is taking its side and not just the Labour opposition.

Of course, Johnson is facing London’s voters in just over five months, and is looking for ways to portray himself as not the Government’s candidate. It will be tempting to take a cynical view Johnson’s support for solar power subsidy, but right now the industry needs all the support it can find.

Johnson may also be looking to elections much further in the future that would give him power over more than just bendy buses and pay-as-you-go bicycles. The trick for the industry is to keep his support over the long-term, that is, if it survives that long.

Justice is justice, whatever the political climate

One of the Altitude directors recently came across the Labour Party’s 1990 policy programme and searched for the party’s policy on Cyprus:

“Labour believes that Turkish troops must withdraw from the island and that Cyprus should be reunited on a federal basis which restores the unity of the island with full safeguards for the Turkish minority.

“A Labour government, as one of the guarantor powers, will use its influence at the United Nations and elsewhere to help bring this about. Meanwhile, Britain should not agree to Turkish membership of the European Community.”

An easy bit of internet searching brought up the Conservative manifesto pledge on Cyprus from 1992, which reads:

“We seek a solution to the dispute which has divided Cyprus since 1974. A settlement must recognise that Cyprus is indivisible and that the rights of both communities must be assured. We will support the UN’s efforts to secure a fair and lasting solution.”

Of course, we now view things in the context of a world changed by the horrors of 11 September 2001 but should our principles as an international force really have changed so much to have diluted these stances down to what is now essentially a state of political ambivalence on Cyprus?

I think not. Justice is justice, and we should seek to impose it constantly and without wavering. Tell your MP.

From zero emissions to zero debate

The irony of the 2010 General Election campaign is that it is the most unpredictable for a generation, yet there has been little serious policy debate apart from on the financial crisis and National Insurance. Even the arch spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, is calling for more media coverage of policy.

There has been massive interest in the leaders’ debates, which has blown away all the early predictions of the likely result. It has also nullified the parties’ best efforts to devote discussion to specific policy areas on particular days.

So it should come as no surprise that polling by Ipsos Mori should show that, for the first time since 1987 (when the question was first asked), party leaders are as important as policies in deciding voters’ choice of party. The gap in favour of policies over leaders widened from 1997 to 2005, but narrowed dramatically by summer 2008 and is now level.

I know it’s the economy, stupid, so it is entirely appropriate for the level of public borrowing and the fragile nature of the economic recovery to dominate what little policy discussion there is. But there has been virtually no discussion of other issues such as transport, crime, health or education, education, education.

Does anyone recall being told that tackling climate change was the number one issue facing, not just the country, but the whole world? True, this and the related issue of future energy supplies, came up in last night’s leaders’ debate. But there has otherwise been virtually no mention of the subject.

The Guardian did at least host a debate between Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband and his Conservative and Liberal Democrat shadows, Greg Clark and Simon Hughes. After 36 hours, the paper’s online report had attracted 52 comments. By contrast, just one of its comment articles on last night’s leaders’ debate received 281 comments in half that time.

There is no shortage of policy or initiatives on energy, climate change or reducing carbon emissions. We are told that so-called green industries have the potential to create up to half a million jobs. Yesterday, I attended the 2010 Sustainability Live exhibition in the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. This brought together hundreds of exhibitors, from renewable energy equipment manufacturers to sustainable waste disposal and water treatment specialists, university research departments, trade associations and professional bodies.

There is huge commercial and academic interest in developing the means to reduce harmful emissions, and to develop a more sustainable economy based on innovative and more secure energy supplies. Yet none of the exhibitors that I spoke to were aware of any discussion in the election campaign that is relevant to this burgeoning sector.

When it comes to climate change, we seem to have gone from zero emissions to zero debate. There will, eventually, be plenty of discussion on the policies that the new Government should pursue, but not till after the election.

X Factor politics, Hammer Horror policies

I attended a Conservative Party business event this morning, addressed by David Cameron. It was billed as Supporting Small Business and Building the Big Society. Unfortunately, the clamour from the media throng for his answer to the X Factor-like surge from the Liberal Democrats, meant that there was precious little space for him to say much about business.

But beyond the brouhaha surrounding National Insurance Contributions, you will learn little from the media on what each of the parties are offering business. The curse of reality TV politics, is that there is now even less space for policy debate in any area, let alone on business issues.

True, David Cameron did mention cutting Corporation Tax and exempting new businesses from paying National Insurance on the first 10 new jobs. But it was hard to get away from hung parliaments and attitudes to Nick Clegg.

Each of the parties has dedicated sections in their manifestos and websites on policies for business. The Conservatives will reduce red tape and form filling, simplify business taxes and make rates relief automatic for small business. Labour’s proposals include cutting regulatory costs, doubling the capital gains allowable under Entrepreneur’s Relief and temporarily increasing small business rate relief. Like the two main parties, the Liberal Democrats say that they will remove unnecessary regulations. They will also establish local enterprise funds, stimulate bank lending to business and part-privatise the Royal Mail.

As with manifestos as a whole, the wording can often be couched in such general terms that the promises can, sometimes, mean anything to anyone. People running businesses will make their own judgements on which party they would prefer in power. But regardless of which party wins, scrutinising manifestos will not be enough for business to ensure that the new Government implements policies that enable them to flourish. Businesses, whether individually or through trade associations, will need to engage with policy makers as soon as possible after the election. The purpose is not just to anticipate policy but to try and shape it before it is finalised.

Forecasting the election result has now got a lot more complicated. We may even be facing the prospect of a hung Parliament, with either a minority Government or a coalition. In these circumstances, and especially in the latter, manifestos go out the window to be replaced by policy programmes based on political horse-trading.

Businesses, as well as the financial markets, don’t like uncertainty. But post-election uncertainty is also an opportunity for business to exert its influence on future policy. But they must engage proactively with policy makers, be they ministers, advisers or officials if they want to see a policy mix that enables British business to thrive and expand. Failure to do so could result in the X Factor politics being generated by the leaders’ television debates, producing a Hammer Horror for business.

Cadbury’s Law is a fruit and nut case

“There’s no difference between any of them” is, we’re often told, how electors view the political parties. But ever since the days of “Butskellism” there have been more similarities than differences between the parties.

And while there is not a revolutionary gulf between the 2010 election Labour manifesto and Conservative manifesto, there are some clear differences. One significant difference for business interests is on takeovers.

Labour holds that many takeovers are good for neither predator nor prey and that the system needs reform. By contrast the word “takeover” doesn’t even appear in the Conservative manifesto.

Labour is playing to the gallery, substantially orchestrated by the Unite trade union’s anger over Kraft’s hostile takeover of Cadbury. Labour wants to introduce a higher threshold of support among shareholders to agree a takeover; increasing it from a half to two thirds. It also says that the case for limiting the right to vote to those on the register before a bid “should be examined”.

Speaking for the Conservatives, Shadow Business Secretary, Ken Clarke dismissed these proposals as “populist nonsense” and vowed to adopt a “hands off” approach to business.

Labour is clearly throwing a sop to unions, leftwingers and little Englanders, upset about losing control of a British-owned chocolate manufacturer. But it is short on specifics and clearly wants to avoid joining France in regarding the British equivalent of yoghurt makers as a strategic interest of the national economy.

No one is seriously proposing the “Cadbury’s Law” that the unions were looking for. Nevertheless, Labour is more likely to place some restrictions on takeovers, even if they turnout to be a lot weaker than its supporters hope for and that business fears. A two-thirds rule would enable at least some inefficient managements to use minority coalitions of shareholders to protect themselves from proper scrutiny, and dismissal. But it is not in the interests of businesses or the UK economy to enable blocking minorities to protect weak, inefficient or incompetent management.

Earlier this year, the Takeover Panel announced a consultation on the Takeover Code to look at how shareholders decide on the merits of takeovers. Labour’s manifesto partly pre-empts this consultation and should the Conservatives win the election, it may never see the light of day. But the political difficulties that come with some takeovers cannot be wished away.

Most business takeovers run their course without much discussion beyond the City pages of newspapers, but there will be some that run the risk of public controversy and a minority Conservative Government or one with only a small majority could come under political pressure to protect, so-called, vital British interests.

Under such circumstances, whether a takeover bid is accepted or resisted, all parties involved will need to explain proactively to all stakeholders, the case for or against a bid. Whoever forms the next Government will not thank the combatants in takeover battles for dragging them into political controversy. If that happens, they may yet find the Takeover Panel stepping into the ring to call time out.

Manifesto makes a point

The Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos will be published next week. These will provide an invaluable resource for insomniacs and political anoraks around the country, as well as giving us an insight into the likely policy priorities of the next Government.

Manifestos are necessarily limited in what they cover, with the infamous exception of Labour’s 1983 offering, “the longest suicide note in history”. They are usually confined to broad policy statements and worded with enough ambiguity to allow future ministers a liberal interpretation of what exactly are their commitments.

But elections also provide an opportunity for outside interests to enter the policy debate. That’s why the run-up to the General Election has seen various businesses and campaign organisations put forward their own manifestos, visions and policy demands.

One valuable contribution comes from vaccine manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur MSD’s manifesto, Putting vaccines at the heart of health care. It calls for a full-scale review of vaccination policy to give it a more central role in the provision of health care.

In his first speech as Health Secretary in June 2009, Andy Burnham said that prevention is a “long-term insurance policy against spending challenges”. The focus, however, has been on attempting to change life-style choices. No one is arguing against this, but if policy makers want to enhance prevention, then greater importance should be given to vaccination, which is a far more effective means of preventing ill-health than relying on people to change their eating and drinking habits.

Vaccination can prevent more than 20 infectious diseases and has helped eradicate smallpox. Only the provision of safe water has done more than vaccines to reduce mortality. But too often it is seen as something that is only for children. The NHS Choices website lists 17 vaccines (including next stage doses and boosters) that are offered routinely to “everyone” in the UK. Yet only two, flu and pneumonia, are for adults.

Our immune systems decline with age, which leads to more frequent and more severe infections. And with the over-60s population predicted to increase by 160% between 1999 and 2050, increasing infections in the older population will increase the burden on the NHS.

That’s why Sanofi’s manifesto echoes the calls of European health academics for a “life course” approach to vaccination. Vaccination programmes should start from 50 years of age, before age-related decline in the immune system begins. The recent approval by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation for a shingles vaccine to be available on the NHS, albeit from the age of 70, is a start. This could help reduce the incidence of this debilitating disease by half, and thereby save the NHS care costs.

Judging by the three-way bun-fight between Andy Burnham and his Conservative and Lib Dem shadows, Andrew Lansley and Norman Lamb on Newsnight yesterday, the election campaign is unlikely to see serious debate on the future of health policy.

Officials and health professionals will read Sanofi’s manifesto with care but will politicians get the point about vaccination? Perhaps when the election is over, they will read other people’s manifestos.

Crying foul on football’s debt junkies

Early in March, Chester City Football Club folded following a compulsory winding up order for debt of £26,125 owed to HM Revenue and Customs for unpaid tax. A group of City fans under the banner City Fans United is now trying to form a new club owned by its supporters.

This news may not have travelled far beyond Chester but it is symptomatic of how English football is exposed, not just financially but politically too. Football clubs have racked up massive debts, fans are making ever-louder protests and the Government senses it has an open goal to force change on the clubs.

Cardiff and Southend owe the Exchequer nearly £2.5 million between them and are regarded as insolvent by HMRC. The Guardian has exposed the complex web of debt and holding companies behind Hull City. The club’s auditors, Deloitte, have added a warning to its accounts that there may be a “significant doubt over [its] ability to continue as a going concern”. Can anyone remember who owns Portsmouth this week while it tries to escape administration? And Arsenal fans laugh nervously everytime they see Liverpool and Manchester United fans protest against their US owners for landing their clubs with debts which, together, total nearly £2 billion. I say nervously, because Arsenal’s own debt, although reduced, is still over £200 million.

With the 2010 election now unofficially underway, Labour has sensed an opportunity to weigh in on the fans’ side. A Department for Culture, Media and Sport statement last week called for the Burns Report recommendations on governance to be implemented in full and for further unspecified improvements in financial regulation.

The Labour Party, however, senses a good populist cause. With more than half a million fans attending top-flight football matches each week and four million subscribers to Sky Sports, it is probably right. It has lost patience with the football authorities and its manifesto is likely to include a requirement on clubs to give fans or supporters’ groups a 25% stake. There will also be a change-of-control clause that would give fans time to put together their own takeover proposal if their club is up for sale or goes into administration. The FA and professional leagues will also have additional oversight of club takeovers.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are both partly member-owned yet have debts of £312 million and £610 million respectively. So giving (some) control to fans won’t, on its own, usher in an era of board room parsimony. But club owners – be they foreign billionaires, Goldman Sachs bankers or local builders – could, at the very least, have a vocal share-holding minority ready to cry foul at every play they make.

Labour’s plans may last no longer than UEFA’s disciplinary decision against Eduardo. But with the Conservative Party also pledged to take action and give fans a greater voice, the rules governing football club ownership look set to change regardless of who wins the general election. And if football’s plutocrats get their fingers burned as a result, there will be no referee to blame.