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Friday, April 28, 2017

Questions that need answering on Circuit of Wales project

Yesterday's Auditor General Report on the Circuit of Wales project in Ebbw Vale underlined what a quagmire the Welsh Government has got itself caught in.

As the Western Mail reports, there are some serious questions that need answering about the use of public money in this project and whether we are getting value for the investment the Welsh Government has undertaken.

The report questions why the Welsh Government allowed money to be used for projects that weren’t in line with the aims of the grant:

In particular it questioned why:

Altogether the project has received from the Welsh Government a grant of £2m and a loan underwriting facility of £7.33m, which had to be paid to the project’s bank in full in April 2016 when the company was unable to pay the loan.

Economy Secretary Ken Skates is currently deciding whether to provide a further loan guarantee of £210m from public funds, without which the project will not proceed.

Before any more money is poured into this project there needs to be full answers to these questions and Ministers must give us some confidence that this the circuit is deliverable and viable. At present there are real questions over whether it will ever be a going-concern.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

From Hillsborough to Gandhi - the life and times of the UKIP leader

It is a long trek from allowing people to believe falsely that you lost 'close personal friends' at Hillsborough to comparing yourself to Mahatma Gandhi but it is a journey that the UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall is determined to take.

According to the Independent, Mr Nuttall claims that his views are a decade ahead of our time just like the more enlightened, pacifist Indian leader. The only problem with that self-serving analysis of course is in fact, his and his party's views are actually rooted in some very old prejudices and have nothing to do with the future at all.

The paper says that the Ukip leader claimed other parties would, in time, come to support his party’s policies on issues such as banning the burqa and that he has attacked critics who he said "trivialised or sniggered" at Ukip’s announcement that it would ban face coverings:

“Ukip will lead on these and as I said in our press conference I feel as if we are a decade ahead of our time – a bit like we were a decade ahead of our time on getting out of the EU, and on mass immigration. We led the debate on those issues and we will lead on these.

“It is a bit like the Gandhi thing – first they laugh at you, then they attack you, and then you win."

When the party leader indulges in so many fantasies then there is hardly surprising that the latest poll puts them at 4%.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Will May give in to the public demand for a debate?

Does Theresa May really believe that she can control the terms on which a General Election is fought? That is the question that many broadcasters may well be asking as she continues to resist taking part in leaders' debates.

As the Independent reports, their poll shows that the majority of the British public wants her to go head to head with her rivals in live TV debates during the election campaign. The BMG Research survey reveals more than half of people want the live contests to go ahead:

Respondents were asked whether “leaders of the UK’s major political parties” should participate in the debates ahead of the 8 June general election.

A total of 54 per cent said “yes”, with 25 per cent replying “no” and 21 per cent saying they did not know.

Among voters planning to back each of the major political parties, there were majorities wanting the debates to go ahead in almost all.

Only Conservative voters were more equivocal – but even there more believed they should happen, with 44 per cent calling for leaders to take part, and 40 per cent saying they should not.

If anything this poll should encourage broadcasters to empty chair the Prime Minister. The problem with that of course is that it may come across as the opposition arguing over the scraps. Perhaps that is the point.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The threat to Higher Education posed by Tory policies

Today's Independent reports that Theresa May is under mounting pressure to remove foreign students from the immigration figures after MPs warned that her refusal to do so is damaging Britain’s world class universities.

They say that a report by the cross-party Education Select Committee calls for overseas students to be recorded “under a separate classification and not be counted against the overall [migration] limit":

Suggesting that Ms May is isolated on the issue, the MPs say: “There is widespread support for treating international students as temporary rather than permanent migrants: from the public, Parliament, and parts of the Government.” It highlights remarks by the Brexiteer ministers Boris Johnson and Liam Fox in favour of taking the students out of the figures.

Amid Cabinet tensions over immigration, the Prime Minister may have to compromise in order to push the Higher Education and Research Bill through before Parliament is dissolved for the general election. Unless she makes concessions, the House of Lords, which voted for an amendment saying foreign students should not be treated as migrants, could block the Bill.

Although Ms May last week reaffirmed her commitment to the Government’s target to reduce net migration to under 100,000 a year, it is unclear whether the figure will be included in the Conservative Party's manifesto. The Independent understands that some ministers, who believe the goal will never be achieved, are pressing for a vaguer pledge to reduce migration to “sustainable levels.”

The obsession with immigration is badly damaging higher education as well as other sectors such as the NHS. It is time the Tories woke up and acted to put this right.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Labour lacking clarity on key policy

All parties have a moment during election campaigns when a key spokesperson goes off message, leaving spin doctors to gloss over the mistake and set things straight. It is not usual though for the party leader to undermine policy in the way that Jeremy Corbyn did yesterday.

As the Guardian reports, Labour was forced to issue a statement on Sunday saying: “The decision to renew Trident has been taken and Labour supports that. We also want Britain to do much more to pursue a proactive, multilateral disarmament strategy.”

This statement came three hours after Corbyn had appeared to cast doubt on a future Labour government’s support for the nuclear deterrent system, and suggested he would think twice about backing a strike to kill the leader of Islamic State:

In an interview on the BBC1’s the Andrew Marr Show, Corbyn, who has been a longstanding campaigner against nuclear proliferation, said he did not believe it necessarily made the UK safer.

“I want us to achieve a nuclear-free world, to adhere to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and take part in negotiations surrounding that,” he said, stressing an immediate need to take part in talks de-escalate nuclear tensions involving North Korea.

“The issue has to be that we want a secure and peaceful world,”Corbyn said. “You achieve that by promoting peace and also promoting security. Security comes from that process.”

It was the second time since Theresa May announced the snap general election last week that Labour has had to clarify statements made by the leader.

At this rate Labour's manifesto-writing process could prove to be an interesting tug of war. If Corbyn continues to undermine it then it may be not worth the paper it is written on.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

No Coalitions, no compromises

Tim Farron yesterday, positioned the Liberal Democrats as an independent force determined to fight for the country's best interests by opposing a hard Brexit, without being shackled to the interests of any other party.

As the Observer reports, Farron ruled out any form of coalition with the Tories or Labour after the general election. Instead he set out a bold ambition to attract enough Remain voters to form the main opposition party in parliament:

In a dramatic shift of strategy for a party that entered coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 in the “national interest”, Farron said in an interview with the Observer that there will be “no deal, no deal with anybody” under any circumstances.

He insisted that both the Tories and Labour were intent on driving through a hard Brexit, which would include taking the UK out of the single market, and that his party had a duty to offer a distinct alternative, including a policy that would keep open a possibility of the UK staying in the EU.

“There is no way we can countenance any kind of arrangement or coalition with the Conservative party and likewise with the Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn,” Farron said. “He [Corbyn] accepted hard Brexit, he voted for it. He enabled it. It has put us in the situation we are now in.”

His message positioned the Liberal Democrats as the distinctive champion of remainers: “If you want to prevent hard Brexit, want to prevent us leaving the single market, if you actually want to give the British people the final say on the terms of the as yet unknown deal, which of course would allow people to vote to remain should they wish, and if you want actually a decent, proper opposition party in this country then we have this wonderful opportunity of an incredibly clear message that nobody else has. Those people who were on the losing side need someone to speak for them.”

This statement finally puts to bed all the speculation about what happens after the election and allows the Liberal Democrats to concentrate on their core messages.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Corbyn gets a lesson in devolution and Welsh Lib Dem policy successes

It was billed as the Labour leader's first visit to Wales since the General Election was called but ended up mired in confusion as Corbyn's team were forced to abandon their theme for the day.

As the Western Mail reported before the visit, it was understood that Corbyn was going to switch the focus of Labour’s campaign to education with a speech in Cardiff warning that too many schoolchildren are “crammed into classrooms like sardines”.

That was before he was told that education in Wales was devolved to a Labour Government that has allowed class sizes to grow over the last 14 years. More to the point, schools are now the responsibility of Welsh Liberal Democrats Minister Kirsty Williams.  She has just committed £36 million to reduce infant class sizes around Wales despite opposition by some Labour AMs and the Labour Council Cabinet Member in Cardiff.

Having been trumped by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Jeremy Corbyn came to Cardiff and talked about saving the pension triple lock instead. Perhaps somebody should have mentioned to him that this was introduced by a Liberal Democrat Minister as well.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Protecting the election from the hackers

After all the controversy about the alleged hacking of the US Presidential election by the Russians, steps are apparently being taken to stop it happening here.

The Independent reports that security measures are being put in place to prevent any attempt by Russia or other foreign powers to carry out a cyber attack during the upcoming general election.

They say that the National Cyber Security Centre will coordinate the operation to safeguard Government departments as well as political parties after they asked for help.

The paper adds that the real extent of Kremlin interference in UK domestic politics remains unclear:

The Commons Public Accounts Committee said in a report earlier this month that a hostile foreign power may have been behind the crashing of a voter registration website in the run-up to last year’s Brexit referendum.

However, the security agencies, The Independent has learned, concluded the crash was due to technical reasons. The Cabinet Office confirmed that “it was due to a spike in users just before the registration deadline. There is no evidence to suggest malign intervention”.

But security sources say that there was a “pattern of acts” by foreign hackers in the run-up to the 2015 election which caused concern. The agencies have been monitoring claims of foreign propaganda and cyber activities in elections abroad since the US presidential vote.

The cyber-security operation for the British election will range from offering advice to ministries, political parties and other organisations involved with the polling and ensuring they have adequate electronic security measures in place.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Will the Prime Minister be empty-seated in TV debates?

When she announced the General Election Theresa May was very clear that she would not be participating in any leaders debates. Presumably she has calculated that to do so would give her opponents greater credibility and exposure, a mistake Cameron made in 2010. However, whether that position is sustainable over the period of a campaign has yet to be seen.

The Independent reports that ITV have said that it will push ahead with a debate, while the BBC has also now said it wants the studio audience events to happen. Whilst a poll has suggested an overwhelming majority of Britons believe there should be televised debates between party leaders during the general election campaign:

A spokesman from ITV told The Independent that the broadcaster would "hold a leaders’ debate as we did in 2010 and 2015."

It will be hosted by Julie Etchingham, who chaired a similar event in 2015, with further details due to be released in due course. A source confirmed leaders had been invited, but would not say what would happen if any refused to show up.

BBC head of news gathering Jonathan Munro said: "The BBC is working hard to make sure that there are leaders’ debates on the TV in the run-up to the general election because they are overwhelmingly in the public interest."

There have been calls for broadcasters to "empty chair" Ms May if she does not attend, but her aides said the Prime Minister's refusal remained in place despite signals that the broadcasters may push ahead without her. 

Will May be empty chaired? That has to be seen.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tory MPs may face electoral fraud prosecutions before election day

Well that deteriorated quickly. One minute we are quietly getting on with the local elections and the next we are facing a General Election a few weeks later. Parliament will vote tomorrow and it looks like the required majority will be there. However, there is still unfinished business that could derail some of the Prime Minister's plans.

As the Independent reports, Conservative MPs accused of breaking election spending rules at the last election face the possibility of being prosecuted by the Crown while they are in the middle of fighting their re-election campaigns.

The paper says 14 police forces have sent files to the Crown Prosecution Service relating to the Tory 2015 ‘battle bus’ scheme, which it has been alleged led to Tory candidates breaking strict spending limits on elections:

'The CPS is currently reviewing the evidence and considering whether to charge the MPs with breaking the election spending limits, which are put in place to prevent those with wealthy backers from gaining an unfair advantage during general elections.

A spokesperson for the CPS confirmed to The Independent on Tuesday evening that any charges would have to be made before the date of the general election, which Theresa May wants to hold on 8 June subject to a vote in Parliament tomorrow.

This means the CPS's announcement must by law fall while the MPs are campaigning for re-election, before 8 June.

No charges have yet been made against any MP. All 14 police forces who sent files to the CPS last year applied for a 12 month extension to the prosecution deadline, which would have otherwise elapsed last summer.

Channel 4 News reported on Tuesday evening that the CPS is considering prosecution against over 30 individuals with regards to 2015 election expenses.

As a result, a decision has to be made by the CPS by late May or early June, meaning that any charges will land during at least the long election campaign period, and possibly even the short campaign.

Police forces who have sent files to the CPS relating to the spending allegations include Avon & Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon & Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire, the Metropolitan, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire.'

This could get messy.

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