Politics Summary: Friday, March 12th

Nick Clegg warned a deal with David Cameron could split the Tory party, "no new tax rises under Labour" says Liam Byrne, the expenses four in Court and more.

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Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has been warned a deal with the Conservatives risks dividing the party. The Times reports that, ahead of the Lib Dem spring conference which begins in Birmingham today, several leading figures have voiced concerns “over how far he could carry the party into an alliance with David Cameron” – including Steve Webb, Lib Dem work and pensions spokesman, who said: “The leader cannot simply decide this himself … We have to debate these things as a democratic party.” A recent poll of Lib Dem councillors, says the report, suggested “31 per cent favoured a deal with Labour in the event of a hung Parliament, twice the proportion who would ally with the Conservatives”. The Independent, meanwhile, reports Clegg’s insistence he “will not play games with other parties”, saying of the prospect of what he would do if neither Labour nor Tory won an overall majority: “We will cross that bridge when we get to it … You cannot put the cart before the horse … If a party with no majority has the strongest mandate, we accept the principle that that party has the right to govern either on its own or to reach out to others. People constantly ask us to speculate on what would happen with this twist or that turn.”

The chief secretary to the Treasury has pledged there will be “no new tax rises under Labour”, reports the Telegraph. Liam Byrne, “in a surprise intervention ahead of the Budget”, ruled out increasing VAT from 17.5 to 20 per cent, says the report. Speaking on yesterday’s Daily Politics, Byrne had said: “We’ve set out exactly how we will find that ¬£19 billion [to reduce the deficit – from previously announced tax rises], and we set that out in the pre-Budget report … We don’t see a need to do that [raise VAT] because we’ve made some difficult decisions about National Insurance contributions.” The report concludes: “The election campaign will be dominated by how the main parties intend to help the economy recover from the worst recession in living memory. Mr Byrne is seen as a close ally of Gordon Brown and his comments are likely to reflect the wishes of No 10 … If Mr Byrne’s tax claims are correct, the focus will switch to cuts in public spending.”

Ministers have ruled out a ban on racist teachers following an independent inquiry into racism in schools, reports The Guardian. The issue will, however, be reviewed annually, with a seperate inquiry into “whether measures to stop racism being promoted in independent schools are adequate” being launched. Banning BNP members from schools would be “taking a very large sledgehammer to crack a minuscule nut”, said Maurice Smith, the former chief inspector of schools who conducted the review, adding: “To bar teachers, or other members of the school workforce, from joining non-proscribed organisations would be a profound political act. I have come to the view that the existing measures in place to protect children and young people from discrimination or political indoctrination are well-grounded, and comprehensive enough to mitigate the risk.” On concerns over independent schools, Smith said: “The most recent public concern is focused on independent schools staffed by unqualified teachers … The measures to protect against the promotion of racism by qualified teachers have less influence in the independent sector compared to maintained schools, because there is no evidence regarding the proportion of teachers in the independent sector who are qualified.”

All the papers report the appearance in court of the “expenses four”, Labour MPs David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Elliott Morley and Tory peer Lord Hanningfield. The Telegraph says they were “made to sit in the dock as they made a historic appearance before a magistrate”, the Mail calls them “‘Thieves’ who think they are above the law”, adding that the three MPs “argued that, under the 321-year-old Bill of Rights, they could be judged only by the House of Commons. At first, they declined even to stand in the dock – until told in no uncertain terms by the judge that they must”, The Times reports the four’s insistence the “allegations against them should instead be tried by parliamentary authorities”, the Express headline reads “Expense-row MPs plead: Don’t treat us like crooks”, and Simon Hoggart’s sketch in The Guardian describes it as the “unkindest moment”, saying their treatment “was not what they are used to”.

The Mirror, finally, reports the international development secretary’s warning that rich nations “must honour their pledges to help the world’s poor”. Douglas Alexander insisted world leaders had to act now to meet targets on hunger, education and health set by the United Nations in 2000. He was speaking as he launched a plan to feed 12 million malnourished children, double education aid and boost spending in “fragile” countries at a conference of development experts. He said: “We need leaders to endorse an action plan which will benefit hundreds of millions of people in the developing world. I firmly believe there is more the international community can do and that is why I am using today’s conference to identify how best we can work together.”

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