Politics Summary: Wednesday, March 3rd

The Times and Guardian devote their front pages to the Ashcroft saga as letters show how William Hague assured Lords authorities that the billionaire would pay “tens of millions a year in tax”. The Guardian reports that, “Documents seen by the Guardian detail how William Hague, then leader of the Tory party, gave repeated assurances to Downing Street and to Lord Thomson, chair of the peerages scrutiny committee, that Ashcroft would return to the UK and end his status as a tax exile.” Meanwhile, the Times details new evidence which contradicts the billionaire donor’s account of how he became a peer. Ashcroft’s account of the terms under which he came a peer were undermined by a statement from a former civil servant, Sir Hayden Phillips, who gave the peerage its final approval: “I was in no position to confirm whether or not he would or would not meet the commitments he had entered into … Nor was I in the business of interpreting what those commitments meant.” The Times goes on to ask, “Why can’t David Cameron sack Lord Ashcroft and put beyond doubt his claim that the Conservative Party has changed?”

The Times and Financial Times report on a new study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which casts doubt on the effectiveness of “pupil premium” proposals outlined by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The plans would see more money given to schools teaching the poorest children but the IFS says the policy was “unlikely to reduce social segregation” or generate the same number of new schools in poor areas. It said it would also “reduce the attainment gap” between poor pupils and other children only “to a modest degree”. Meanwhile, the Guardian outlines that a Conservative government would immediately overhaul the national curriculum in English, maths and science – and hand control of A-level exam content to universities and academic experts to end “political control”. They would also scrap the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has told the Financial Times that his party would act as the “guarantors of fiscal stability” if the next election were to produce no clear victor. He said that the Lib Dems would try to find a working arrangement with a minority administration led by Gordon Brown or David Cameron, in exchange for important concessions on policy and the Budget. These concessions could include the party’s “shopping list” of raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, directing more school spending to poorer pupils, breaking up big banks, and political reform including – of course – voting reform at Westminster.

The Independent devote their front page to the “historic agreement” that three leaders’ debates will take place during the election campaign. The debates – one each on domestic policy, foreign policy and economic policy – are likely to be screened on April 15, 22 and 28. Like the three leaders, each debate will be chaired by a white man. Paul Waugh yesterday revealed that there could also be televised debates for the key government jobs including Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary. The Times focuses on a “a strict set of 76 rules” including no booing, hissing, heckling, or clapping.

Left Foot Forward’s US sister site, Think Progress, reveals that “right-wing extremist groups have grown 244 percent in the past year”. A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the number of active “Patriot groups” grew from 149 groups in 2008 to 512 groups in 2009, an addition of 363 new groups in a single year. Militias – the paramilitary arm of the Patriot movement – were a major part of the increase, growing from 42 militias in 2008 to 127 in 2009.

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