The five things you need to know on Tuesday June 2 2015...
1) CHARLES KENNEDY, RIP
Charles Kennedy’s death, at the age of just 55, is a personal tragedy and a huge loss to British politics. For those of us who knew him, it’s indeed difficult to even write that he’s gone.
At our weekly meetings of ‘The House’ magazine MPs and peers board, Charles would often light up proceedings with a flash of wit, always ready with an anecdote and concise insight. He loved politics and, in many ways, lived for politics.
With a difficult personal life overshadowed by his drink problem, his day job both in the Highlands and at Westminster was his main focus. That’s why the loss of his Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat at the general election - after 32 years - was such a shattering blow.
A former Baby of the House in 1983, in recent years he may have lost some of his edge but he never lost that youthful twinkle whenever there was a bit of political gossip or intrigue.
The phrase ‘a man of principle’ can become hackneyed, but for Charles it was all too true. His courage in leading his party against the Iraq war, a move that helped the Lib Dems to their biggest share of seats, was much praised. His decision to vote against the formation of the Coalition in 2010 - the only MP in his party to do so - again underlined how he refused to compromise his beliefs.
Perhaps his most courageous decision however was his acceptance after his resignation as party leader that he was ‘coming to terms with and seeking to cope with a drink problem...a serious problem indeed’. As he himself so memorably once said: “courage is a peculiar kind of fear”.
Tributes have poured in from Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown today. But our thoughts are with his family, Sarah and his son Donald.
2) AGENCY EMERGENCY
Jeremy Hunt has been on the Today prog and other airwaves to announce his crackdown on staffing agencies which ‘rip off’ the NHS. And unlike most ‘crackdowns’, this one looks like it’s for real. Fresh rules introduced by Hunt will set a maximum hourly rate for agency doctors and nurses, ban the use of unapproved agencies and put a cap on total agency spending for each NHS trust in financial difficulty.
The soaring agency bill is indeed a national scandal, not least because it is more expensive and often leads to worse care for patients. In many ways, it resembles the housing benefit bill, whereby taxpayers’ cash is handed over to the private sector often with no guarantees of service quality.
Andy Burnham, who has been raising the issue for years, says Hunt is trying to ‘pull the wool over people’s eyes’, blaming the Coalition decision to cut 6,000 nursing posts and big reductions in nurse training places. The respective levels of ‘bank’ rate and ‘agency rate’, as well as more family-friendly rotas, will also have to be addressed by trust chief execs if any of this is to work.
Hunt is indeed most vulnerable on the low training rate, but he told Today that “It isn’t just about more numbers, it’s also about rostering” and pointed to hospitals where best practice worked.
The big issue is whether a localised NHS is too fragmented, as some critics claim, for change to happen quickly enough. This is an issue that won’t go away just after one announcement.
3) BORIS’S EURO CAKEWALK
Boris was on typically flamboyant form as he delivered the second ‘maiden’ speech of his career last night (strangely, another re-tread, Alex Salmond, suggested he was not allowed to make a second maiden last week).
The top line was obvious: that the UK has to be prepared for Brexit if David Cameron fails to get what he wants from the EU renegotiation. Or as Boris put it: “we should be prepared to strike out and forge an alternative future that could be just as glorious and just as prosperous with a free trading arrangement.” At this point, he became pretty animated.
Yet note too that Bojo also said in his speech that he ‘believed’ Dave would indeed come back triumphant from the chancellories of Europe, ‘crowned with success’. Never forget that great Boris-ism: “my policy on cake is I'm pro-having it and pro-eating it”.
So it is on Europe. Some Eurosceptics saw last night’s speech as a clear signal that Boris was ready to put himself at the head of any ‘No’ campaign in the 2017 referendum. But others suspect Boris is deep down a pragmatic, closet Europhile and that he was simply helping No.10 scare the living daylights out of Brussels to get his way. His hopes of leading the Tory party could rest on which way he jumps.
Boris’s speech overshadowed Philip Hammond’s own Chatham House speech, but the Foreign Secretary’s own line that it was time to ‘lance the boil’ of Britain’s membership of the EU was for him pretty ear-catching. (So too was his remark yesterday that the UK’s withdrawal from the ECHR is ‘not on the table’, a marker to Gove and May)
In a speech in Brussels today, Nicola Sturgeon is to warn that the clamour for Scots independence will become ‘unstoppable’ if Britain quits the EU.
BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Ed Miliband try his best to avoid eye-contact in the Commons yesterday, courtesy of BuzzFeed’s Siraj Datoo
4) YOU TARTAN, ME JANE
Yvette Cooper is to head to Scotland later this week, I’m told, as part of her nationwide tour of areas where Labour lost. It’s a brave decision to be the first Labour leadership contender to enter what is now a lion’s den of tartan. As she explores the darkest interior of SNP-land, she may need more than courage.
Cooper’s tail is up of late, not least as her camp believes she’s been setting the agenda in the race on everything from wooing business, backing the 50p tax rate, rejecting the ‘break clause’ idea, accepting the benefit cap and pushing childcare.
But to prove that the Scottish problem is a big one, Johann Lamont told the BBC this morning that there is ‘no quick fix’. She also has a dig at the way the party nationally pulled resources from the battle after the referendum, in a bid to save English seats. Michael Dugher, who’s on Andy Burnham’s team, has been under fire from some in the Scottish Labour party for allegedly refusing to divert cash north of the border. I’m sure he’d deny that.
Meanwhile in the Indy today, Liz Kendall wins the most surprising endosement of the day, after leftwinger Paul Flynn came out for her. To underline Labour’s task is huge south of the border too, the Guardian has a Fabian analysis warning that boundary changes mean the party now needs to win 106 seats to form a Government in 2020. That mountain is getting bigger.
5) THE IDS OF JUNE
Downing Street’s firm smackdown yesterday of any move to restrict child benefit has underscored Whitehall’s Third Law of Political Gravity: for every cuts plan there will be an equal and opposite reaction from those affected.
So it is that allies of Iain Duncan Smith are unhappy that their own proposals to meet the Treasury’s £12bn welfare savings target were met with such lofty disdain in No.10. IDS had told officials to model cuts for an equal sibling rate and two-child-only cap but the PM’s official spokeswoman (and man) piled in heavy amid fears of losing all those floating voters won over by lovely new childcare pledges.
As No.10 told us: “the PM wants to keep child benefit, not cut child benefit”, adding that he’d told ITV’s Chris Ship he was “correct” to assume it was safe for the whole Parliament.
Part of the story is that IDS wanted to give the Chancellor some early savings in the July Budget. The Times reports that HMT still wants “the bulk” of the £12bn to be unveiled next month, but we may have to wait for the full comprehensive spending review for the whole package. When informed of a decision to delay some of the savings until the autumn, a DWP source tells the paper: “that’s the first I’ve heard of that suggestion”.
COMING UP LATER
The Chancellor has a Written Ministerial Statement on an update in Government shares in Lloyds Banking Group.
The Sun reveals that charities minister Rob Wilson will today read the riot act to charities to stop them ‘preying on’ and sharing data of OAPs like Olive Cooke.
Former civil service chief Lord Kerslake has his maiden speech in the Lords.
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