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Foreign Affairs

On Monday, Foreign Office Minister David Lidington reported on the meeting of the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council. Developments in Iran, Bosnia and North Africa preceded a lengthy discussion about the crisis in Ukraine and the EU’s relationship with Russia. In language reminiscent of the Cold War era, EU foreign ministers condemned the “illegal” referendum in Crimea and adopted a package of sanctions against Russian politicians said to be responsible for undermining Ukrainian sovereignty, leaving Moscow fulminating against Western “double standards”.

David Cameron also sought to respond to criticism that his response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine had been muted to protect the interests of the City of London, freezing all inter-parliamentary contact and military cooperation and announcing during a statement on the EU Council and Nuclear Security Summit that Russia had been expelled from the G8 group of industrial nations.

Budget Debate

After a well-received fifth budget in which the biggest talking point was a Conservative Campaign Headquarters advert highlighting cuts in beer and bingo duty, the House of Commons continued with the three day budget debate before approving the Ways and Means Resolutions to bring into effect changes in the income tax and corporation tax thresholds.

The Finance Bill was published on Thursday. One of the most controversial aspects of the legislation is a series of measures designed to claw back £5bn from people who have used tax avoidance schemes in the last ten years, with HMRC being given the power to demand immediate payment in any case where a tax enquiry is underway. Exchequer Secretary David Gauke has won plaudits for his uncompromising stance on tax avoidance. However, the fact that the proposals allow HMRC to take money directly out of people’s bank accounts without their permission and will apply retrospectively has led to concern that they undermine the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and they will likely encounter resistance when they are scrutinised by the Finance Bill Committee next month.

Welfare Reform

Having previously pledged to reverse elements of the Government’s reforms to the benefits system, Ed Miliband suffered an embarrassing defeat when fifty of his MPs ignored his instructions to vote in favour of the coalition’s £119bn cap on welfare spending during a debate on the Charter for Budget Responsibility. The rebellion struck a further blow to Miliband’s authority, which had already been undermined by a warning from former Communities Secretary Hazel Blears that Labour needed to make faster progress in developing policies that people could relate to and were not yet seen as a government in waiting.

With Labour seeking to burnish its ‘tough on welfare’ credentials, Minister for Disabled People Mike Penning announced in a Written Statement that Atos, the provider of Work Capability Assessments, had agreed a settlement to exit their contract ahead of schedule. The Minister said that Atos had not received “a single penny” in compensation, pleasing disability rights groups who have been critical of what they see as the intrusive and arbitrary nature of the assessments.

Nick vs. Nigel

It was an early start on Wednesday morning as I was interviewed by LBC Radio about the impending showdown between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Both politicians held their own and were essentially playing to different audiences. Although Westminster pundits were quick to call the debate for Clegg, polling afterwards suggested it was Farage who won over most listeners. 52% of respondents said they were left with a positive impression of Farage, up from 40% before the debate, while 34% thought that leaving the EU would be good for jobs in Britain – an increase of 8%.

Carl Thomson
Director, The Whitehouse Consultancy