Road trip 2013: Cameron slams UKIP while Osborne pushes for northern benefit cuts

Mid-term season is upon us.

David Cameron has been on the warpath today, preparing for his long-awaiting mid-term speech with Nick Clegg tomorrow. The pair will announce the Coalition's mid-term review, show off about their achievements so far, and set out some future policies (likely to be the last ones the coalition campaigns jointly on, as we move ever closer to election season).

First up is his interview with the Sunday Telegraph's Matthew Ancona. The big quote from that is that Cameron seems not to be downgrading his political ambitions in line with his poll ratings, as he tells the paper:

So, to be absolutely clear. When he tells voters at the 2015 election that, if he wins, he wants to serve a full term as prime minister, he will mean it literally (not, as Tony Blair did in 2005, to connote “a couple more years”)? “Yes. Look, I want to fight the next election, win the next election and serve – that is what I want to do. I often say to Conservatives, stop complaining about the things we haven’t done, look at the things we have done and are doing. This is an enormous reform agenda and that’s enough to keep us all busy, so that’s how it stands.”

This is said with resolve. And his aides agree afterwards that the PM’s remarks signal a fresh clarity: a determination not only that his strategy should be successful, but that he is the person to implement it. Remember: thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, this translates into Cameron remaining in No 10 (the electorate permitting) until at least May 2020. That would mean matching Blair’s period in No 10 (10 years), approaching Thatcher’s tenure as PM (11 years) and matching the span of her party leadership (15 years). Cameron’s declaration also sheds sharp new light on the ambitions of those presently touted for the succession: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond, George Osborne, Grant Shapps. Clearly, if the Tories win in 2015, Cameron has no intention whatsoever of waiting a couple of years and then retiring to his Lego and board games.

Cameron also took a Mail-pleasing stance on deportation, arguing with respect to Abu Qatada that:

I’m keen to move to a policy where we deport first, and suspects can appeal later.

Since the reason why Qatada wasn't deported was that British courts thought that there was an unacceptably high risk he would face torture in Jordan, it appears Cameron is basically cool with that. It's also unclear how he plans to overcome the massive hurdle of access of justice that comes from being tortured in an overseas prison while trying to appeal to the British courts. But moving on.

This morning, the PM appeared on the Andrew Marr show, where he annoyed much of the Tory right by doubling down on his assertion that UKIP contains "odd people". In this he is entirely factually accurate, but also sending a pretty strong signal to his own party not to hope for a merger any time soon. UKIP are, in Cameron's eyes, a party firmly on the fringe of UK politics.

Cameron also began firmly laying ground for Britain losing its triple-A credit rating, arguing that the interest rate at which Britain borrows is what we should be looking at instead. That interest rate is higher than fully 10 of the twenty countries whose rates are quoted by the FT, but it remains very low. That's got little to do with Cameron's leadership and everything to do with the reverse sovereign debt crisis the world has experienced for the last few years, so he ought to be safe for some time if that does become the new benchmark for success.

And throughout today, suggestions as to what might be in tomorrows speech have been leaking out. The Sun suggests more roadbuilding, The Sunday Times picks up on the idea of a single-tier pension, and the Telegraph reports that Osborne has requested lowering benefits in the North.

Tomorrow might be an interesting day if that goes ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.