1.9 per cent growth and rising – could the economy soon surpass its pre-recession peak?

UnionJack arrows angled“The economy will surpass its pre-recession peak within months as growth returns to its fastest pace since 2007, economists said yesterday. … Analysts have forecasted growth of up to 3 per cent this year – as the latest GDP figures show national wealth rose by 1.9 per cent in 2013. … Chancellor George Osborne yesterday welcomed the latest boost to the British economy but warned: ‘I am the first to say the job isn’t done.’ … The Office for National Statistics said the economy grew by 0.7 per cent in the final three months of last year, having expanded by 0.8 per cent in the previous quarter.” – Daily Mail

  • “But the job is still only half done. The Government must act now to boost underperforming cities such as Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol.” – Sun editorial (£)
  • “In sum, while the recovery is real, it is not yet particularly powerful, and – had expectations not sunk so far with the economy – it might be called anaemic.” – Guardian editorial
  • “The numbers do show, however, that Britain’s economic engine is running strongly again. Yet it is bolted to an unwieldy chassis and Mr Osborne must drive it carefully.” – Times editorial (£)
  • “Big risks to the outlook remain: the adjustment of the Chinese economy, civil unrest across the Middle East and jitters in the wealth creating economies as the American monetary stimulus is eased; our European neighbours are still suffering from a single currency and banking trauma. … These are strong global headwinds, but Britain and the other Anglo-Saxon nations look to have momentum on their side.” – Alex Brummer, Daily Mail
  • “Unbalanced and unsustainable – that’s the correct message on the UK economy to take from today’s fourth quarter GDP figures, not that things are magically turning on a six pence.” – Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph

The Chancellor defends the Queen…

OSBORNE SWORD“George Osborne spoke as several Tory MPs yesterday accused the Public Accounts Committee of ‘meanness’ and ‘grandstanding’ in a report in  which it criticised courtiers for failing to balance the books and leaving dozens of royal residences in a state of disrepair. … ‘I think the Public Accounts Committee chair is being unfair to the way the Royal Household has managed its finances,’ Mr Osborne said.” – Daily Mail

  • “But leave aside the injustice of blaming our 87-year-old sovereign. Isn’t it also unseemly to expect her to start treating the monarchy as a commercial concern?” – Daily Mail editorial

…but may have cooled on the idea of selling off RBS before the election…

“The government has abandoned hope of selling any shares in Royal Bank of Scotland before the general election after the bank said faced an £8bn loss. … Only a year ago ministers were toying with the idea of handing out shares to the general public just before the election in May 2015. Both Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable and Tory Treasury minister Sajid Javid were keen on the idea. … One coalition aide said on Tuesday: ‘We are not assuming any sale this side of the election’.” – Financial Times

  • “The Chancellor has been urged to nationalise loss-ridden Royal Bank of Scotland as the bank faces up to its biggest loss since the credit crisis began. … Lib Dem peer Matthew Oakeshott said the Treasury had to get a grip on the bank and take full control before it was too late.” – The Sun (£)

And comment:

  • “Bonus culture has become so warped that bankers presiding over losses of £8bn still think they deserve a reward” – Simon Jenkins, The Guardian

…and faces calls for tax cuts

“Mr Osborne paved the way this month for a rise to £7 in the national minimum wage, saying that the recovery meant businesses could afford to pay more. … However, a growing number of Tory MPs want a signal from the Chancellor that he intends to reward the party’s traditional supporters, with one favoured option raising the threshold for the 40p tax bracket. … However, allies of Mr Osborne say that he is determined to resist the pressure and target help at the lower paid to blunt Labour’s claim that the pain of austerity has not been shared equally.” – The Times (£)

  • “Any new tax cuts made possible by a recovering economy will be focused on people on “low and middle incomes,” George Osborne has said.” – Daily Telegraph
  • “George Osborne refused to rule out a cut in the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p today as the Conservatives and Labour clashed over the economy.” – The Independent

And comment:

  • “Imagine the explosion of growth if we got serious about tax-cutting” – Allister Heath, Daily Telegraph

> Today: ToryDiary – The Tories need a generous not a coercive rhetoric about the poor

Further horse-trading over the Immigration Bill

Horse“Backbencher Nigel Mills is calling for rules restricting access to British jobs for workers from Romania and Bulgaria, which expired in January, to be restored. … Last night, government whips were said to be backing a compromise set of amendments proposed by another Tory backbencher, Stephen Phillips – which would give a vague duty to the Home Secretary to assess whether EU immigration is excessive in future. … A further rebel amendment, proposed by Tory MP Dominic Raab, would beef up laws on booting out foreign criminals. Last night, a Home Office memo blew a hole in the Government’s case for blocking his amendment.” – Daily Mail

  • “Furious Tory backbenchers have warned ministers they risk ‘gift-wrapping’ votes to UKIP by denying them a voice in the critical immigration debate. … Tory MP Dominic Raab said that blocking any debate on his amendment, calling for foreign criminals to be booted out of the UK, would show the ‘political elite’ do not care.” – The Sun (£)
  • “The Labour party is to vote with the government to help defeat an attempt by rebel Tory backbenchers to put Britain in breach of its EU obligations by reimposing work restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians until 2018.” – The Guardian

And comment:

  • “The Government’s new Immigration Bill takes a step in the right direction. However, because it leaves the judges with discretion on how to balance the public interest in deportation with the right to a family life, it risks turning out to be a damp squib.” – Dominic Raab, Daily Mail
  • “Ukip’s hate-filled message gains traction only because of our politicians’ shameful timidity in confronting them” – Ian Birrell, The Guardian
  • “The costs of limiting migration are real. Yet political debate is hampered by misperceptions. How many politicians will be brave enough to lead opinion rather than follow it?” – Gus O’Donnell, Financial Times

Let’s frack all over, says Paterson

PATERSON floods“Drilling for shale gas should take place ‘all over rural parts of the UK’, Owen Paterson has declared. … The Environment Secretary risks a clash with green groups over his plans for the controversial technology, but says Britain must cash in on gas trapped in rocks deep underground to ‘create prosperity and jobs’. … He said shale has already dramatically reduced gas prices in the US, now a net exporter of energy, and it would be done safely in Britain.” – Daily Mail

  • “Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, was accused of ‘dissimulation’ and getting his facts wrong yesterday by peers who labelled the Government’s shale gas ambitions ‘pathetic’.” – The Times (£)

But the Environment Secretary has to deal with the floods first

“Furious flood victims last night accused officials of gross incompetence and abandoning them to the elements. … They said they feared the ‘worst was yet to come’ in the Somerset Levels, huge stretches of which have been under water since Christmas. … Experts backed up their claim that the Environment Agency’s decision to stop dredging key rivers had created a ‘disaster area’ covering 25 square miles.” – Daily Mail

  • “Government officials were specifically warned a year ago that two rivers could cause severe flooding in the Somerset Moors – which have now been under water for weeks – unless they were properly dredged, The Independent has learnt.” – The Independent

And comment:

  • “This was why [Paterson’s] intervention this week was so dramatic: he realised this particular disaster arose from such a massive system failure that he needed to take a grip of a crisis the agency itself had created.” – Christopher Booker, Daily Mail
  • “It is the result of a deliberate strategy by the Environment Agency, with its peculiarly metropolitan mindset, to put fashionable green causes above the basic needs of rural dwellers.” – Daily Mail editorial

The MoD wants a private sector company to run its bases

“The Ministry of Defence is expected to appoint a private sector partner to manage its entire military estate – from airfields to training bases – within weeks in a trailblazing deal that will pave the way for sales of properties including Deepcut barracks estate in Surrey. … The MoD is one of Britain’s biggest land owners, with 230,000 acres of land covering conservation sites, office blocks, barracks, homes and military bases.” – Financial Times

Brokenshire launches a new scheme to help child slavery victims

BROKENSHIRE, James headshot“Child slavery victims are to be given expert help to keep them out of the clutches of their evil captors. … Security Minister, James Brokenshire, said: ‘Child victims of slavery are an incredibly vulnerable group in need of specialist support but at the moment provision is patchy and inconsistent. … We want to ensure there is a single, dedicated point of contact for each child from start to finish.'” – The Sun (£)

Matthew Parris is worried about Gove

“These [attacks] may not come from Gove, but he gathered about him a claque of bellicose advisers (we journalists receive their triumphalist, sucks-to-Labour press releases all the time) who became the Education Secretary’s virtual motorcade. They seemed to many to reflect a secret feral side to a man who to colleagues and commentators has always seemed so outstandingly civilised. It genuinely baffles us.” – Matthew Parris, The Times (£)

Boris urged to set up a corporation for building homes in London

“Boris Johnson should fix London’s ‘broken housing market’ by setting up a City Hall-run corporation to build homes directly, a Labour member on the London Assembly says. … In a report on the capital’s housing costs, Tom Copley said a London Housing Corporation could ease the homes shortage and spiralling prices by borrowing against the Greater London Authority’s revenue stream to build new homes.” – Financial Times

  • “Buildings set ablaze during the August 2011 riots might have been saved if police had been equipped with water cannon, a senior Metropolitan Police officer said.” – Financial Times

> Today: Majority – We need a planning system that actually plans

> Yesterday: Ruth Porter on Comment – The importance of building more homes

Clegg announces that hundreds of Syrians will find refuge in Britain

Syria“Hundreds of the most vulnerable victims of the civil war in Syria will be able to seek refuge in Britain, in a deal brokered last night. … Precedence will be given to the most extreme cases such as women and children at risk of sexual violence, the elderly, survivors of torture and people with disabilities, Nick Clegg announced. … The Deputy Prime Minister said Britain had a ‘moral responsibility’ to help alleviate the suffering in the region” – Daily Mail

  • “David Cameron has turned down Vladimir Putin’s invitation to the Winter Olympics, leaving the Russian President short of world leaders attending the opening ceremony of the controversial Games.” – The Times (£)

And comment:

  • “If there were ever a U-turn for a government to be proud of, then this must surely be it. The decision to refuse sanctuary to refugees from Syria was never a morally defensible one.” – Independent editorial

Underprivileged pupils are falling further behind, despite the Lib Dem leader’s pupil premium

“Underprivileged pupils fell further behind better off children last year despite Nick Clegg’s flagship policy to narrow the exam gap between them. … The gulf widened in 72 out of 152 local authorities in a year despite extra funding from the pupil premium policy, according to Left-wing think-tank Demos. … This included 66 where the difference was larger than before the premium was introduced.” – Daily Mail

  • “Some food for thought, Nick – why not plan a policy before you implement it?” – Oliver Wright, The Independent

Baker wants teachers to check pupils’ phones for sexual images

“Teachers should look through pupils’ mobile phones to delete  sexual photos, a minister said yesterday. … Norman Baker, a Home Office minister, said young people had to be taught about the risks of sending intimate photographs of themselves by text, email or instant messaging – a practice known as ‘sexting’. … But Tory MP Sarah Wollaston called for the government to go further and ban children from using smartphones altogether if they are caught using sexting images to bully other pupils.” – Daily Mail

  • “Schools are to publish online what they teach children about sex, drugs and alcohol.” – The Independent#
  • “Encouraging couples to go to marriage courses or relationship counselling sessions could ultimately save taxpayers billions of pounds a year by reducing family break-up, a Government backed study concludes.” – Daily Telegraph

The Lib Dems decline to pick a woman as their deputy leader

LibDemDeadAn ex-Lib Dem councillor today said it was ‘unbearable’ to be a woman in the party – after walking out over their latest sex scandal. … Her comments came as Lorely Burt , one of the few female Lib Dem MPs lost out in a bid to become the party’s deputy leader. … Despite being hot favourite, the Lib Dems tonight revealed Malcolm Bruce had been picked. He insisted the Lib Dems were a ‘progressive’ party.” – The Sun (£)

Miliband’s closeness to Hollande is the Tories’ “secret weapon”

“Tory chiefs will use Ed Miliband’s closeness to hapless Francois Hollande to launch a full-on assault on his fitness to govern – sparking a major diplomatic bust-up. … Party bosses say they want to make the pair’s friendship their ‘secret weapon’ in the European and general election campaigns.” – The Sun (£)

  • “Fresh figures revealing a full year of strong growth have pushed Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to a new low on trust over the economy.” – The Sun (£)

And comment:

  • “In the end, though, a policy of taxing the rich and making companies pay for social policy is no more sustainable than Gordon Brown’s. Eventually it will be bound to topple.” – Daniel Finkelstein, The Times (£)
  • “The only loser in Britain’s resurgent economy is Labour” – Mark Wallace, Comment is Free

> Yesterday:

Labour want an apology… for how Thatcher handled the miners’ strikes, thirty years ago

“The Labour party is to call on the government to issue an apology for the conduct of Margaret Thatcher’s administration during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, after recently released Whitehall papers showed a secret plan to close 75 pits. … In a sign of how Ed Miliband is returning the Labour party to its traditional roots, the shadow cabinet office minister Michael Dugher will say that the ‘shocking’ conduct of the Conservative government warranted an apology.” – The Guardian

And they also want a ban on smoking in cars carrying children

Smoke“Smoking in cars carrying children could soon become illegal if a vote in the House of Lords is passed. … The plan will go before peers today as Labour proposes an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, to discourage people from smoking around youngsters. … The amendment would make it a legal obligation for drivers of private vehicles to prevent smoking when a child is present.” – Daily Telegraph

Salmond to discuss independence with Carney

“First Minister Alex Salmond will hold his first face-to-face discussions with Bank of England governor Mark Carney in Edinburgh today. … Mr Carney is also giving a speech in the capital, in which the issue of a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK will be addressed.” – The Scotsman

> Today: Henry Hill’s Red, White and Blue column – SNP refuse to promise restoration of 50p rate in an independent Scotland

The head of GCHQ is standing down – is the timing merely coincidence?

“The head of the GCHQ is standing down amid controversy over the damaging revelations made by US whistleblower Edward Snowden. … Security sources insisted that Sir Iain Lobban, 53, who has run the Cheltenham listening post since 2008, was always due to quit, labelling the timing ‘pure coincidence’. … But insiders made clear that the crisis engulfing the eavesdropping agency may now lead to an outsider being installed as the new director general.” – Daily Mail

  • “GCHQ’s mass surveillance spying programmes are probably illegal and have been signed off by ministers in breach of human rights and surveillance laws, according to a hard-hitting legal opinion that has been provided to MPs.” – The Guardian

The “huge payoff” for the NHS chief who, er, never left

“An NHS manager was given a £370,000 redundancy payoff even though he never left the health service, it can be revealed. … He is one of three managers paid a total of almost £1 million, despite still working in the NHS, according to figures which have provoked a fresh row about ‘scandalous’ revolving-door payments.” – The Times (£)

  • “Number of vulnerable patients going to casualty up 93 per cent in five years as senior doctors warn patients and health professionals are ‘losing faith’ in care outside hospitals.” – Daily Telegraph

Obama’s State of the Union Address: “I won’t stand still”

OBAMA headshot blue“President Barack Obama delivered a landmark speech in his presidency Tuesday night, throwing down the gauntlet to congressional Republicans by threatening to implement policies without their help whenever they refuse to ‘make progress together’ with him. … ‘America does not stand still – and neither will I,’ Obama warned in his State of the Union address. … The president outlined more than a dozen initiatives that he plans to kick-start without appealing to Capitol Hill.” – Daily Mail

News in brief

  • Barclays could close up to a quarter of its high-street branches, as it plans to open counters in supermarkets – Daily Mail
  • National Audit Office criticises BBC executives over failed IT mega-project – Daily Mail
  • Argentina starts rebuilding its airforce – The Sun (£)
  • Will there be three arrests in the Madeleine McCann case? – The Sun (£)
  • How the parties plan to deploy digital firepower at the next election – Financial Times
  • Court told that Coulson knew a story had been obtained through voicemail interceptions – The Independent
  • Ukraine’s Prime Minister and Cabinet stand down – The Guardian

And finally 1: From Cameron to CAMRA

Pub Landlord“One of them is a patriotic, right-wing figure with deep-rooted concerns about the influence of the French and the Germans, and indeed any foreigner with the temerity to darken our shores. The other is the Prime Minister. … Now it has emerged that David Cameron and the comedian Al Murray, best known in his guise of The Pub Landlord, are related.” – The Times (£)

And finally 2: The bottom-line

“During heated exchanges Mr Osborne joked Labour needed ‘new crystal balls’ to make economic forecasts. … A rattled Mr Balls — who has endured 20 years of Tory jibes — replied: ‘Very good, Chancellor. A joke about my name being Balls.’ … Bizarrely, Shadow Treasury Secretary Chris Leslie appeared to grab Mr Balls’s bottom as he sat down.” – The Sun (£)