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David Cameron unveils his secret poll weapon… the welfare wedge
01:51 GMT, 9 December 2012
Conservative Ministers have been moved on to a campaign footing by David Cameron. The day after the Autumn Statement, he summoned them to party headquarters for a conversation away from prying Liberal Democrat ears.
They walked past a clock counting down the days, hours and minutes to the next Election and into a Millbank meeting room where they discussed how the party could win a majority in 2015. One of those present told me afterwards: ‘At last, we’re beginning to look beyond the Coalition to the next Election.’
Thursday was also the seventh anniversary of Cameron becoming party leader. This, perhaps, explains his good mood. Cameron can often be fractious at these meetings of Conservative Cabinet Ministers, irritated by criticisms of the Coalition. But this time he was far more open to suggestions than normal. Rather than presentations from his own advisers, the emphasis was on listening to Ministers.
In this together: Prime Minister David Cameron wants to unite his ministers in preparation for the General Election 2015 – and this time to lead them to a majority win
The main topic was how to deal with Labour. The consensus was that they were not putting Ed Miliband’s party on the spot enough. Cameron remarked that they had to force Labour to ‘make difficult decisions’.
The first sign of this is George Osborne’s decision to take the squeeze on working-age benefits out of the Finance Bill and hold a separate Commons vote on it. This forces Labour to decide whether it is for or against it.
I understand that there was agreement they should do all they can to make Labour vote on the benefits cap of 26,000, which the party opposes despite its huge public support.
A senior Conservative source tells me there will be much more use of the ‘welfare wedge’ between now and 2015.
Then, conversation turned to what to do about their Coalition partners, the Lib Dems.
More from James Forsyth…
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A Frankenstein moment for Dave as he squares up to his monster
And now, without the aid of a safety net, it's Dave on the EU high-wire!
Earn, learn or lose benefit: No10 gets tough with the young
David Cameron is ready to rip into the EU… in 2015
'Dear Madam, we've axed your child benefit' The letter that could halt the Tories in their tracks
Dave's first-class work has been derailed again
Dave starts the election race – with a pint of Guinness
VIEW FULL ARCHIVE
Considerable frustration was expressed about Nick Clegg’s decision to block boundary changes, which the Conservative leadership had long regarded as crucial to their chances of winning a majority. However, Cameron made it clear he expected the Coalition to continue all the way through 2014.
Michael Gove argued that Lib Dem MPs needed to be put on the spot about whether they wanted Cameron as Prime Minister at the next Election. He argued that one of the trump cards Tory candidates had to play was that voting for them was the only way to guarantee that Cameron, not Ed Miliband, would be PM.
But in a sign of how difficult it will be for the Tories to win an outright majority, there was also talk of whether Lib Dems would be prepared to unite with them again in the event of another hung parliament.
Such is the attention the Tories are paying to their Coalition partners that there was even a brief conversation about the tensions between two Lib Dem Cabinet Ministers, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Business Secretary Vince Cable.
Alexander is most Conservatives’ favourite Liberal Democrat member of the Cabinet. They regard him as easier to deal with and more persuadable than other senior Lib Dems.
Strikingly, when the subject of Europe came up there was near unanimity. Though, as one attendee jokes, that might have been because Ken Clarke – the most Europhile Tory Minister – wasn’t there.
Cameron explained that, after the next Election, he wanted to renegotiate Britain’s membership and then offer the country a referendum on staying in on the new terms, or leaving.
Even Andrew Lansley, long regarded as one of the least Eurosceptic people at the top of the party, stressed to the Prime Minister that the renegotiation had to bring considerable powers home if the Conservatives were to actively campaign for Britain to stay as a member of the EU.
Towards the end of the meeting, Grant Shapps – the party chairman who seconded Cameron for the leadership when he stood in 2005 – produced cakes and seven candles to mark the anniversary.
As Ministers scoffed down mini carrot cakes and fondant fancies, they were left to reflect on whether after the next Election the icing will be on the cake and they’ll be governing on their own.
Crooner Chris gets the Tory 'X' factor
Christopher Maloney might not be favoured by The X Factor judges, but he has found a fan in the Prime Minister.
When stars of the ITV singing competition, including panellist Nicole Scherzinger, came to Downing Street to switch on the Christmas lights, the Liverpudlian was the only finalist who was keen for a photograph with Cameron.
This left an impression on the Prime Minister and when Conservative Campaign Headquarters staff came to No 10 for a party on Thursday night, Cameron urged them to vote for Maloney in this weekend’s final. He joked that he was sure the other two contestants definitely weren’t Tories.
Sing the blues: Chris Maloney, right, with David Cameron and Nicole Scherzinger at 10 Downing Street
this age of austerity, there is a new Christmas competition between
Secretaries of State: to see who can save the most money on their
Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, has put in an early bid for this title.
For the second year in succession, he has managed to get a free Christmas tree for his department.
It is quite a contrast to Christmas past, when the department used to spend more than 1,000 on its festive pine.
Why gay marriage is such a taxing issue
Same rights: Why David Cameron supports gay marriage
When David Cameron was a candidate in Witney in 2001, he knocked on the door of a cottage and was met by two men.
They told him that they agreed with the Conservative Party on most issues, but couldn’t vote for it as it regarded them as second-class citizens because they were gay.
This incident had a big effect on Cameron. He feels that the Conservative Party has to show it is enthusiastically committed to equal rights for gay couples.
Supporting gay marriage is seen by several Tory strategists as a way of demonstrating that the party is reasonable and modern.
Focus groups and polling show it matters a lot to younger voters and women.
However, there’s concern inside No 10 that if a majority of Tory MPs oppose gay marriage, the vote could have the opposite effect to the one Cameron intends.
Canvassers of party opinion suggest only slightly more MPs are in favour than against.
Some in Downing Street are arguing that Cameron should try to win over wavering MPs by promising to introduce a transferable tax allowance for married couples as soon as gay marriage is on the statute books.
QUOTES of the week
‘It’s a very nice thought to become a grandfather in old age.’
learns his daughter-in-law is expecting a baby.
Ugly child: Eva Longoria
‘Is there other news’
BBC Business Editor Robert Peston
tweets in jest after his report on tax is trumped by the Royal announcement.
‘In terms of the loss of incomes and outputs, this is as bad as a world war.’
Bank of England official Andrew Haldane
in a sobering take on Britain’s crisis.
‘My beauty is just an image that has been created because of my job. I was an ugly kid.’
Actress Eva Longoria
looks back on a childhood far removed from A-list glamour.
‘If you took this region out of the UK economy, it would be called Ethiopia.’
Commentator Kelvin MacKenzie
claims that taxpayers in the South East pick up the bill for the rest of Britain.
‘The upper middle classes like anything ecological: it assuages their guilt. Give your posh friends a bag of muddy parsnips. They’ll love it.’
Cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry
shares a present-buying tip.
‘Self-flagellatory porn for the bien-pensant bourgeoisie.’
Blogger James Delingpole
says that the BBC filming J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is a waste of the licence fee.
‘On my first day, I walked in to 16 chefs wolf-whistling at me. I smiled at them and swore I’d put each of them on the floor before long. And I did.’
MasterChef star Monica Galetti
has a novel technique for tackling sexual harassment in the workplace.
‘Babe your mate kept pestering me for a picture last night and boring my ear off. I was like zzz.’
Soap actress Helen Flanagan
tweets I’m A Celebrity… co-star Nadine Dorries after meeting Ed Miliband.
‘People say, “Would you go out with him if he was a binman” Well, if the binman could play guitar, paint pictures and was hilariously funny, I would.’
Theatre producer Sally Humphreys,
34, explains the attractions of her 65-year-old fiance, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood.