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Red Box

Monday, February 23

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Good morning,

Philip Webster reports on today's political events as a new lobbying row envelops Westminster.

In today's edition:

  • Rifkind and Straw fight back in lobbying row
  • Exclusive: Fox warns defence cuts will risk UK's moral authority
  • Cameron woos pensioner vote
  • Voters want Lib Dems to be different – poll
  • Miliband eyes more control of Treasury

Latest: Jack Straw told Today that he was "mortified" to have fallen into a trap. He had always followed the rules. His conversation with the bogus company was about what he might do after he retired as an MP, he said.

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Top News
Rifkind and Straw fight back in new lobbying ‘scandal’

As stings go, this is quite some sting.

Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, two former foreign secretaries, have referred themselves to the parliamentary commissioner for standards after being secretly filmed apparently offering to use their positions to benefit a private company for thousands of pounds.

The two were named in an investigation by The Daily Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches programme. They deny any wrongdoing and both have fought back strongly this morning.

They were filmed by reporters claiming to represent a Hong Kong-based communications agency called PMR, which was seeking to hire senior British politicians to join its advisory board.

The Telegraph says they are exposed for their involvement in a new “cash for access” scandal and that they offered to use their positions as politicians on behalf of a fictitious Chinese company in return for payments of at least £5,000 per day.

All papers follow the story and The Times reports that Straw agreed to be suspended from the parliamentary Labour party. He probably had little choice.

At one meeting he is said to have described how he operated “under the radar” to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity company that paid him £60,000 a year.

Sir Malcolm is reported to have said that he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world. He told reporters that he was “self-employed”, despite receiving an MP’s salary of £67,000, and said: “You’d be surprised how much free time I have.”

The disclosures are hugely embarrassing for the main parties at a time when the reputation of parliament and politicians will clearly figure in the election campaign. There is no suggestion that the two engaged in paid advocacy to change policy, which would be against the rules. But MPs may be aghast at the way they apparently emphasised their influence and at the sums of money suggested. They will also be astonished that two old political hands were taken in by the approach after several similar stings.

Sir Malcolm said on Today that the allegations were unfounded and “I will fight them with all my strength.” He accepted that it was “silly” to say that he had no salary because he did have one as an MP, but that he was referring to his business interests, for which he received no salary.

He said the basic allegation was that there was something improper about an MP being willing to take part on an advisory board of a company seeking to invest in the UK. But parliament had said it was acceptable for MPs to be paid. Otherwise about 200 MPs would not be accepting fees.

Everything had to be in the register of interests, and all his interests were registered. He claimed that Channel 4 refused to allow him to appear to answer the allegations, and added that he would be willing to say in public everything he had said to the undercover reporters.

He would not stand down as chairman of the Commons intelligence committee unless his colleagues wanted him to: “One has nothing to do with the other.” He was angry and irritated. He had nothing to be embarrassed about. Rifkind will see the Tory chief whip later, the BBC reports.

On Today, Straw said he was mortified he had fallen into a trap set by very skilful journalists.

Inevitably if one had a private conversation such as this one used language that could be taken out of context. He had always scrupulously observed the rules including those which applied to outside interests. He added that the conversation with the alleged company was all about what he might do when he left the Commons on May 7. He should have left the conversation until then; it would have saved him a fantastic amount of time and trouble.

Lobbying row will help ‘outsider’ parties like Greens and Ukip
Daniel Finkelstein

David Cameron will try to prevent it obscuring his message on the economy, Danny writes. Read the piece

UK and the world
Cutting defence spending will undermine UK’s moral authority - Fox

With two former foreign secretaries under fire, a man who has been tipped as a future inhabitant of King Charles Street has today penned an exclusive piece for Red Box (Callum Jones writes). Liam Fox warns that Britain’s security is under threat from a “malign” Russia and calls on David Cameron to alter his spending priorities and protect the defence budget.

The former defence secretary challenges concerns in No 10 over the heightened rhetoric being used against President Putin, declaring that a Russian attack on a Baltic state would be an attack on the UK and the rest of Nato.

Dr Fox places himself at the head of a growing Tory and military campaign to prevent defence spending falling below 2 per cent of gross domestic product in the next security review. Such a reduction, he warns, would “hugely undermine Britain’s moral authority” and cause difficulties when attempting to convince other Nato members to make the same commitment.

In The Times, Deborah Haynes reports military chiefs and politicians as warning that a failure to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence would send a signal of weakness to President Putin. Rory Stewart, the Conservative chairman of the defence select committee, speaks of its “powerful symbolic importance”.

All this week on Red Box we shall be looking at UK foreign policy. We have top experts lined up to give their verdicts on how this government has performed on the world stage – and what Cameron or Miliband could bring to the table after the election.

Russia’s rising threat to UK
Liam Fox

Malign Russian activity is an indirect threat to Britain, the former defence secretary argues. Our moral authority would be at risk if defence spending fell again. Read the piece

Tory election campaign
PM's pitch to pensioners

Pensioners are more likely to vote than other age groups and today David Cameron makes another unashamed pitch for their support.

He has brushed aside internal cabinet opposition and will pledge to protect winter fuel payments and free bus passes for all pensioners regardless of their income “for as long as he is prime minister”.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are committed to reducing benefits for the most wealthy pensioners and even Tories like Iain Duncan Smith have urged them to pay them back if they can afford to, The Times reports.

But Cameron has an election to fight and Ukip mobilising on his right flank. His allies have told me there was never the slightest chance that he would go back on his pledge to maintain the benefits while Nigel Farage’s party posed the threat it does.

So all pensioners will also continue to receive free prescriptions and eye tests under a future Conservative government. Cameron will also keep the so-called pensions “triple lock”, which means that the state pension will rise by at least 2.5 per cent.

Labour would withdraw the winter fuel payment from the wealthiest pensioners, saving a projected £100 million a year. The party would protect bus passes and TV licences. The Liberal Democrats would scrap both winter fuel payments and free TV licences for the better-off.

  • Nick Clegg will also be on the election trail today, setting out his party’s justice policy. The Guardian says he will call the rising prison population “a sign of failure”.
2015 Election Countdown
73 days to go
Must Read
Military fears savings rather than strategy driving defence policy
Deborah Haynes

The Cameron government will be remembered by the military for one thing: cuts, Deborah Haynes, defence editor of The Times, writes. But what might the next government offer the forces? Read the piece

Labour election campaign
Miliband eyes more control of Treasury

Labour is expected to announce its policy on tuition fees this week after a lively leadership debate which produced weekend puns about “Ed-aches” and “logger-Eds” to describe tensions between Messrs Miliband and Balls.

This coincided with news that John Prescott is returning as a climate change envoy with the role of “knocking heads (not Eds) together”.

This used to be his job when the often flaming battles between Blair and Brown (the TB-GBs) were at their height.

No one suggests anything quite so serious is happening at the moment.

But in The Times Sam Coates reports that Miliband is considering taking tighter control of public spending in a move that would clip the wings of the Treasury under Labour.

Senior Labour figures are considering a cross-party report that makes the case for reshaping Whitehall to ensure that the prime minister has a greater say on Treasury matters.

The return of the pugilistic Prescott, who once punched a protester in an election campaign, will be welcomed by all sketch-writers. One of them, Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail, gets in early and tells us why here.

If the Lib Dems campaigned on their support for the EU, immigration and protecting human rights, how would that make you feel about backing the party?
Exclusive YouGov polling
Voters want Lib Dems to emphasise difference from the rest

What should the key Lib Dem message be? The party has three basic options, and in an exclusive YouGov poll, we tested them for Red Box (Stephan Shakespeare writes).

One option is taking credit for their role in government: "Imagine at the general election the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg campaigned on a message of how they were proud that they had been a responsible party of government, helped get the economy back on track and got Liberal Democrat policies put into action." Eighteen per cent told us this would make them feel “more positive” about voting Lib Dem (versus 26 per cent who said “more negative”, so net minus 8 per cent).

Another option is regretting the past, "a message of distancing themselves from their record in government, saying they now regretted many of the damaging Conservative policies they supported at the time, such as tuition fees and the bedroom tax." This scores marginally better among those who nevertheless still say "though I probably wouldn't vote for them", and worse overall at net -12.

Best on all scores, with net -2 per cent overall, and 25 per cent saying “more positive”, is emphasising the messages by which the Lib Dems clearly distinguish themselves from other parties, such as "supporting a more positive attitude towards the European Union and immigration, protecting human rights and people's freedoms."

It's difficult for people to judge the drivers of their behaviour, so the numbers may not be reliable in an absolute sense, but the options were presented in random order and the difference in response is at least suggestive.

Morten Morland
Top News

Monday comment

1. Thunderer: Selective abortion by gender should be illegal
- Tim Montgomerie, The Times

2. Prescott: The bulldog who saved Labour
- Dan Hodges, The Daily Telegraph

3. Greece is closer than ever to leaving the euro
- Matt Ridley, The Times

4. The price of tuition fees? A generation’s potential and creativity
- Zoe Williams, The Guardian

5. The young just don’t care about politics
- Stefano Hatfield, i
What The Papers Said

The Times

New documents reveal that Nigel Farage claimed nearly £9,000 in EU expenses over six months for utilities, insurance and business rates on a small constituency office. Representatives of patient groups have written to the paper to voice concerns over Lord Saatchi’s Medical Innovation Bill.

Financial Times

The FT reveals on its front page that an investment bank is considering paying its 2015 bonuses early to avoid the extra taxes a Labour government would introduce after May. It also reports that Treasury documents show that ministers have set aside £2bn to write off student loans in this financial year. Kiran Stacey has also visited Sheffield Hallam.

The Sun

The paper splashes on what it dubs an “unholy exclusive” – it has found that the Church of England is recruiting staff at rates less than the living wage, after having campaigned for it.

The Guardian

Leading on the latest revelations in the HSBC scandal, the paper reports that the bank's chief executive sheltered £5m of his own money in a Swiss account.

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