Politics Summary: Thursday, March 18th

The chairman of the Financial Services Authority has pronounced much City activity “economically useless”. According to the Times, “Lord Turner questioned the conventional wisdom that proprietary trading by banks was beneficial because it boosted liquidity and that securitisation and other financial innovation must automatically be beneficial.”

He also provided a boost for the Robin Hood Tax campaign by saying: “We should certainly not exclude the potential role for financial transaction taxes which might, in [the economist] James Tobin’s words, ‘throw some sand in the wheels’ of speculative activity.”

The Times returns to the Ashcroft saga and reveals, “Lord Ashcroft and William Hague will snub an inquiry into how the billionaire party donor”. But Sir Hayden Phillips, the Government official who clarified the terms of the controversial peerage with Mr Hague’s chief whip, will attend. This morning on Today, Mr Hague said he had expected Lord Ashcroft to become “resident” and not “domiciled” but conceded he was wrong to imply that the Treasury would receive “tens of millions of pounds”. The Independent reveals that the BBC has shelved a Panorama documentary about Lord Ashcroft’s business affairs because of a threat of legal action.

The Guardian front page claims to reveal Labour’s secret election plan: “tea on your sofa with Gordon”. The paper says, “the prime minister intends to get up front and personal during the campaign, holding intimate meetings in the living rooms of pillars of the community, in the hope that his message will then ripple out and through the constituency.” The Times has a similar story revealing that Samantha Cameron is the Tories secret weapon: “Dressed in blue, the wife of the Conservative Party leader was all smiles as she visited a project funded by Sport Relief donations before the TV charity marathon this weekend.” Meanwhile, MPs are warning David Cameron that the the party’s election campaign is too complicated and lacks clear messages. “MPs and candidates were left baffled after being told at a private meeting to campaign on a combination of one slogan, three promises and six pledges”, says the Times.

The Independent leads with news that more than 100 universities have had their budgets frozen or cut. The £573 million cut in cash terms “will leave about 220,000 would-be students – out of an estimated 700,000 applicants (including international students) – without a place.” The Times focuses on a different number: a £450 million cut because “last year’s total was inflated by capital spending brought forward to stimulate the economy.” Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said: “The maintenance of funding for research, core funding for teaching, and widening participation are encouraging for the sector overall, given the current economic climate.” The Telegraph has a separate higher education story covering a survey of student debt which shows that 28 per cent expect to accumulate debts of more than £20,000 – a 14-fold increase in just six years.

Yesterday’s lower than expected jobless numbers could result in a £1 billion dividend for Alistair Darling’s Budget, according to the Times. As Left Foot Forward‘s analysis showed yesterday, the labour market is effectively in a “holding pattern” as both unemployment and employment have fallen. The Conservatives are warning that fears of a “jobless recovery” were growing and pointed to the rise of 149,000 people classed as “economically inactive”. But the FT reveals that, “This was driven by an increase of 98,000 in students, although there were also rises in people staying home to look after families or taking early retirement.”

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