The Second TV Leaders’ Debate

(Telegraph) – THE STAKES WERE RAISED for the three party leaders, Labour’s Gordon Brown, the Conservatives’ David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg as they went head to head for the second televised debate of the 2010 general election campaign. Here is a run-down of the questions they faced:-

Q. How would you tackle EU interference?

Mr Cameron said “we have let too many powers go from Westminster to Brussels” and “we should take some of those powers back”.

“I want us to be in Europe, but I don’t want us to be run by Europe.”

After saying he did not want to join the Euro, the Tory leader vowed to cut bureaucracy and rules.

Mr Clegg said the EU was not perfect but said “size does matter”.

He said: “There are a whole lot of things, whether we like it or not – whatever your views on Europe and the European Union – which we simply cannot deal with on our own.”

Saying Europe would help target climate change and international crime, he added: “We are stronger together and weaker apart.”

Mr Brown said there were “three million reasons why we need to be part of the European Union – and they are called jobs”.

Isolating Britain from Europe would be a “terrible, terrible mistake”, he added.

Saying that when the EU and US work together “we are so much stronger”, Mr Brown added: “Let us never again be an empty chair in Europe.”

Q. Given our involvement in Afghanistan, if there is another multinational operation to remove al Qaida or another terrorist group from a failed state, would the UK participate?

Mr Clegg: “The principle of the reason why we went into Afghanistan, why I supported our mission in Afghanistan, unlike the illegal invasion of Iraq, is to keep us safe.

“It’s because we believe that, if you allow Afghanistan to be a haven of extremism and terrorism, there will be more terrorist attacks in Britain. So from that principle if we need to do that again we should.”

But he said if we were to take such action again, the UK must make sure that troops had the right equipment.

Mr Clegg said a strategic defence review after the election was essential and insisted he would not spend money on the third tranche of the Eurofighter Typhoon.

“I don’t think it’s right to do what both David Cameron and Gordon Brown want, which is now to commit, before we even need to make a decision, to spend up to £100 billion renewing, in the same old way, the Cold War Trident nuclear missile system.”

Mr Brown said there were already problems emerging with al Qaida in Somalia and Yemen and the UK would continue to have to act internationally to combat this.

He said: “There is a chain of terror that links these al Qaida groups in different parts of the world to action that could happen in the United Kingdom.”

He added: “To keep the streets safe in Britain we have to take on al Qaida wherever it is.”

The Prime Minister said he believed the war in Afghanistan can be won, and insisted that Britain must keep its nuclear deterrent in the face of the threat from countries such as Iran and North Korea.

Mr Cameron said: “If I was your Prime Minister I would want to think very carefully what’s in the national interest. What would make us safer in the UK?”

He added: “If you look at future operations like that, we have to learn from the mistakes of the past.

“We need to make sure that we never send our troops into battle again without the proper equipment, without the proper helicopters.”

In a future conflict the UK would need to make sure that there was a political exit strategy in place, he said.

But Mr Cameron said the budget to give soldiers better equipment must not come at the expense of the nuclear deterrent.

Q. What are you doing personally to tackle climate change?

Mr Brown vowed to boost the UK’s use of renewable powers, tackling Britain’s dependence on oil.

Promoting the use of wind turbines and solar panels, he also said the development of Britain’s high-speed rail network was “helping to get people off the roads and also get off domestic air flights and I think that’s incredibly important”.

On a personal level he said he had been using trains while on the campaign trail and said he was using solar panels at his family home.

Mr Cameron said the “biggest change” he had made was that his party were “very strongly against the third runway at Heathrow”, adding we should have a “high-speed” rail hub instead: “I think it would be a really big step forward.”

He added: “In terms of my own life, the biggest thing I’ve done is have proper insulation in our house – it really can cut your energy bill, making life cheaper as well as greener.”

Mr Clegg said that in his personal life he was “acutely aware I do not do enough” on a personal level.

The Lib Dem leader said the use of flights needed to be tackled and called for a “plane tax” to be introduced to tackle the pollution caused by freight as well as passengers.

Q. When the Pope visits Britain in September, will the leaders dissociate themselves from him?

Mr Cameron welcomed the visit and said that, as Prime Minister, he would do “everything in my power” to make it a success, although he does not share the Pontiff’s views on contraception and homosexuality.

He said: “I think the Catholic Church has got some very, very serious work to do to unearth and come to terms with some of the appalling things that have happened and they need to do that. But I do think that we should respect people of faith.”

Mr Clegg said his children are being raised as Catholics and there are feelings of “anguish” in the community about the abuse scandals.

He said: “Many Catholics themselves feel really extremely torn apart by what’s happened and I think they do want to see the Catholic Church express greater openness.”

“I do welcome the Pope’s visit but I hope by the time he does visit there is a greater recognition there has been terrible, terrible suffering.”

Mr Brown said the Church had to “make sure that there is an open and clean confession” about the abuse scandals.

But he said he welcomed the Pope’s visit because the Catholic Church was a “great part” of British society and that religious barriers must be broken down.

Q. Given the scandals of the past year, how do you plan to restore faith in politics?

Mr Clegg called for the transfer of power to be handed back to the people, saying: “You’re the boss.”

“We all agree on the rhetoric of cleaning up politics but we actually have to act,” he added.

Calling for voting reforms, he said: “Many people are being ignored and we need to change that.”

Mr Brown said: “We will give the right of recall so that if you don’t like an MP for being corrupt and Parliament doesn’t take an action then you can remove them.”

He added: “You’re vote matters because this is a big choice election.”

Mr Cameron pointed to the anger surrounding the expenses scandal, saying: “Every where I go in this country during the election, there is, simmering and bubbling below the surface, anger about the expenses fiasco.”

He said he would ensure transparency and promote “simple changes” to put people in control, but said “let’s not have permanent hung Parliaments”.

Q. Do all of you think that a state pension of £59 per week is a just reward?

Mr Brown said every woman should have a full state pension and that if Labour wins the election everyone who works for an employer would get an occupational pension, and pensions would be linked to earnings from 2012.

He told the audience: “The one thing that scandalises our society above all else is that we cannot give dignity and security to all pensioners in their retirement, that’s what I want to see.”

He said he would cut the costs of care for the elderly to make it easier for pensioners to keep their own homes.

Mr Cameron said: “Fifty-nine pounds is not enough and we’ve got to do better as a society in giving people what we all want. Those that have done the right things through their lives, we should be giving you dignity and security in old age.”

He agreed that the pension should rise in line with earnings not prices, and said that from 2016 the Conservatives would raise the age of retirement for men by one year to fund changes.

Mr Clegg said the link between earnings and pensions should be restored immediately.

He said there were 2.5 million pensioners in poverty.

“I think we need to therefore make sure that we use what little money we’ve got – money is tight at the moment – wisely.”

Age of eligibility would rise to 65 for winter fuel payments to allow it to be made to people who are terminally ill or disabled.

He said funding social care was “one of the biggest issues we face” and therefore the three main parties must adopt a common approach.

“It is one issue where we just have got to put people before politics for once, this is something which is such a big issue we need to agree on a common approach.”

Q. Is a coalition Government the best way forward for Britain?

Mr Cameron said: “I think we should work together where we can. I have always thought that was important in politics, I helped Tony Blair get his education Bill through Parliament because I thought it was a good Bill.”

But he said: “If there is a hung Parliament, we must be responsible and we must try and deliver the best government that we can for this country but, actually, if you want my frank and honest answer, I don’t think a hung Parliament would be good for Britain because I think we do need decisive government to take some of the difficult decisions for the long term.”

Mr Clegg said: “It is better if politicians try to work together” and added that he would set up a council for financial stability.

“I do think there is potential for politicians to work with each other – don’t believe all these ludicrous scare stories about markets and political Armageddon if that is what happens.”

Mr Brown said the “key thing” was “that we have got to have an agreed plan to reduce the deficit, protect our public services and get growth in the economy and I’m afraid that we don’t have agreement.”

He added: “We should never take the votes for granted, it is up to the public to decide.”

Q. I recognise that immigration is becoming a problem in the country. What new measures would you introduce in order to make the system more fair?

Mr Clegg said his party would reintroduce exit controls and direct immigrants to areas where there was enough space.

He said Labour and the Conservatives had created “chaos” in the past, meaning illegal immigrants were hidden in the “shadows of our economy”.

“I’d rather get them out of the hands of criminal gangs so that we can go after those criminal gangs, into the hands of the taxman. If they want to play by the rules, pay their taxes, speak English, that is a smart, fair effective way of dealing with immigration.”

Mr Brown said an amnesty for illegal immigrants would encourage more people to try to live in Britain, and that the points system was an effective way of managing immigration.

Currently no unskilled worker from outside the EU was allowed to come and live in Britain, he said, and work was being done to reduce the number of skills needed from abroad.

He said a system to count who was going in and out of the country would be reinstated if Labour was elected.

Mr Brown said: “The big key to the future is the points system. If you don’t have the points to come into this country, in other words if you don’t have a skill we need, don’t come to the country.”

Mr Cameron said the UK had benefited from immigration and Britons should be “incredibly warm and welcoming” to people coming into the country legally.

However, he added: “Immigration in recent years has just simply been too high and we do need to bring the level down. That’s the first bit of fairness that needs to be sorted out.

“People do want this addressed and the other two parties are not actually really addressing this issue because we believe you do need to have a cap on people coming from outside the European Union for economic reasons.”

Viewers And Party Leaders Gear-Up For First TV Debate

(Guardian) – THE CHALLENGE facing the party leaders tonight – and the potential for them to enhance or damage their campaigns – is the reason the TV debate is set to change the dynamic of this general election.

Nearly half the electorate say they will be watching the broadcast, according to two polls published this week, suggesting, somewhat implausibly, that as many 21 million people will be tuning in.

And the public say they will not just be watching for fun. According to an ITN poll last night, half those who said they will be watching insisted it will influence their vote. Even though the network estimates there will probably be 10-12 million viewers, all three leaders think the debates will be the axis on which the election turns.

Their remarks will be targeted at the 6 million or so floating voters, rather than at their party faithful, in the hope that they will get the “cut through” that will entice them into their fold.

One Downing Street official closely involved in preparation for the debates claims this will be the moment the general public will engage in the campaign: “For a lot of people this election has not yet lit up. A lot of people are sitting on their hands and waiting, especially women.

“The TV debates may be the point when the election starts. The predominant mood is that the electorate are not very happy with anything on offer. The public feel there are a lot of numbers out there, and find them confusing. It is not that they are stupid – it is complicated, and I don’t think they will break until very late in the last week.”

The official added: “The Tories have hit us with national insurance and marriage tax, a left and a right hook, but we are still standing. As a result the Tories have lost clarity on the deficit. There is a phrase: ‘If it looks too good to be true, it often is not true.’ That is the point we will push in the debates.”

But Gordon Brown’s team know their man is the worst communicator of the three. A Populus poll shows 42% of respondents expect David Cameron to win, compared with 22% backing Brown and, oddly, only 10% behind Nick Clegg.

In his favour, Brown’s aides say he is totally inured to the culture of America’s televised presidential debates – he apparently leaves parties early in the US to go home and watch them.

One of those preparing the prime minister says he knows that if he is to get through to the audience that matters, he needs to show emotion and not just spout statistics. With Cameron played by Alastair Campbell in Labour’s training sessions, Brown knows what it will be like to be hit by a quick-talking, and often barbed, phrase-maker.

Douglas Alexander, Labour’s election co-ordinator, has admitted that the most useful advice for Brown’s team has come from the Australian Labor party. Kevin Rudd, the ALP leader, is like Brown in some ways. He has a lot to say, but had to learn to say it in 60-second statements. Asked if this turns the whole event into a daunting memory exercise, Alexander said: “At its worst, yes, the whole event can be a sequential articulation of rehearsed lines. Anyone who has watched an American TV debate knows that. But then it can turn into a genuine debate.”

Campbell has warned Brown that the challenge is different from any he has faced before. “He’s got the factual stuff in his head,” he told the Fabian Review. “But this is a very different format from prime minister’s questions. It’s television, it’s historic, and the viewing figures are going to be huge. The rules make it quite an odd event – no applause and strict on timings, so it’s about getting used to that format. I just get at him the whole time, the way that Cameron would.”

The Tories have their own problems. Cameron says he’s nervous – and that’s not just for show. Someone who spoke to him recently claimed the Tory leader is anxious to the point of terror, an emotion on which he thrives. He is said to have watched the chancellors’ debate “like a nervous relative”, and has lain awake at night worrying about how he might foul up.

Different pressures affect the favourite in any contest – and expectations on him are high. He is waiting to see if Brown plays the role of father of the nation, though the Labour leader’s political instinct will be instead to swing the clunking fist.

Cameron has to be smart but not smarmy; to show a light touch without being lightweight.

Given the disaffection felt towards politics, Labour strategists are surprised that the Liberal Democrats have not yet done better, but Labour and the Conservatives are worried that this could be Clegg’s lift-off moment.

Cameron has privately admitted that it was a mistake giving Clegg equal time in the debates, and they should have done two with him and one without. One Tory said of Clegg: “He just has to turn up and not fall over and it’s a big success for him.”

Campbell also suggested the Liberal Democrats have got away with daylight robbery. “When we were negotiating the TV debates that never happened, back in 1997, I don’t think it was ever thought, even by the Lib Dems, that the Lib Dems would have equal billing.”

Yet Clegg’s allies say he faces challenges of his own One explained: ‘All Brown has to say is that it is a risk to vote for the Tories, all the Tories have to say is that Brown has failed and it is time for a change. Clegg’s position is more difficult and will take longer to convey.’ Clegg is expected to try to catch the anti-politics mood by describing Labour and the Tories as the old parties and presenting his as the party of change.

A senior Labour strategist tonight predicted Clegg will be the winner because he is new and unknown. But whatever happens, expect every team to claim victory. All three parties are sending big teams up to Manchester to brief the media afterwards in what is being described as either “spin alley” or “the spin room”. The teams will also all be tweeting their man’s victorious exchanges minute by minute.

By then the official verdicts – the polls – will start to pour in, and a winner will be declared. That is, until next week, when the circus reconvenes for another round.

The 90 minute election debate, chaired by Alastair Stewart, will be broadcast live, tonight, on ITV1 at 8:30pm.

Gordon Brown Launches Labour Manifesto

(Telegraph) – GORDON BROWN unveiled Labour’s manifesto for the election, describing it as ”a realistic and radical plan for Britain”.

Under the slogan ”A Future Fair For All”, the Labour manifesto promises to rebuild the economy, renew society and restore faith in politics.

Ahead of the May 6 General Election, it sets out plans to give citizens a greater voice in public services and allow the takeover or merger of under-performing schools, hospitals and even police forces.

As expected, Labour promises not to raise the basic, higher or top rates of income tax over the life of the next Parliament. There is no such commitment on VAT, though Labour does pledge not to extend it to food, children’s clothes, books, newspapers and public transport.

Launching the document at the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, Mr Brown said the manifesto was ”a realistic and radical plan for Britain that starts with securing the recovery and renews Britain as a fairer, greener, more accountable and more prosperous country for the future”.

Flanked by his Cabinet, Mr Brown insisted new Labour was “ready and equipped to answer the call of the future”.

He said: “The road to recovery that we have been travelling is also the road to a better and fairer Britain for all.

“Leave it to our opponents to try to build the present in the image of the past.

“The manifesto is written not in the past tense. It is written in the future tense because even in the darkest days of the crisis we never stopped thinking and planning for tomorrow.”

Mr Brown said: “We are in the future business and under my leadership we will always be in the future business. Building a future fair for all.”

The PM said Labour’s policies matter because Britain was “in a new world now”.

Just as September 11 had brought about a change in countries’ attitudes to terrorism and security, so the credit crunch had changed economic attitudes, he said.

“This is the first post-crisis vote for our country and it is the most important vote for a generation,” he insisted. “Get the big decisions right now, make the right choices now and we not only renew our economy but we renew our society, and renew our politics too.”

Mr Brown went on: “Labour will be restless and relentless reformers. Reformers of the market and reformers of the state.”

Mr Brown pledged to “give every citizen real choice and voice and put you in charge of the service you receive”.

He also promised to replace “discredited and distrusted politics with one where you the people are the boss”, saying the manifesto contained a “plan for national renewal”.

In a dig at the Conservatives, the Prime Minister said: “In its pages and online you will find a programme not setting out empty slogans of change, but setting out who is best for the NHS, who is best for schools, who is best for young people, who is best for jobs, who is best for our pensioners – for dignity and security in retirement with our new National Care Service.”

The priority was to secure the recovery but then move to a “fairer” recovery and economy.

“As long as we see this through – our plan for the future – you, the British people will be better off,” Mr Brown promised.

Business would be backed with high-speed rail, a green investment bank and wider access to broadband.

New standards in the boardroom would be demanded, and finance would take into account the “long-term interests of British business and industry”.

“It’s a Britain where banks serve the people and not the other way round, where banks pay their fair share to society through an international banking tax,” Mr Brown said – drawing applause from the crowd.

Industries where Britain “leads the world” would receive investment and small businesses would be supported, the Prime Minister said.

Plans for apprenticeships and jobs would result in a Britain where “everyone has a chance to get on”.

A minimum wage rising with earnings would help support families and first-time buyers would get more assistance.

Setting out his vision, Mr Brown said: “It’s a Britain where we have more homeowners, more students, more apprentices, more professionals, more businesses and a bigger middle class than ever before.”

In a question and answer session, Mr Brown insisted that the Government had been clear about its four-year plan to cut the deficit.

“We’ve done more than any other country to set out our plans in detail – the tax changes, the public spending reductions and the growth we will achieve to make that possible.

“We said very clearly: £11 billion from efficiency savings, £4 billion from public sector pay and pensions and £5 billion from non-priority areas.

“I don’t think any party could have been clearer.”

In a pointed jibe at the Tories, he added: “Our promises for the future are not based on a flimsy four-page document that does not add up.”

On the question of trust in politicians after the expenses scandal, Mr Brown said all politicians must apologise for letting the public down and stressed: “We can build a more open, fairer and democratic politics for the future.”

Labour was prepared to learn from “past mistakes” and bring forward bold new proposals.

“I’d rather be standing on a manifesto that said here is what we are going to do for the future, than on a manifesto like the Conservatives, who will defend, tomorrow, hereditary peers and no change in the House of Commons.”

Asked if Labour would raise VAT if they won on May 6, Mr Brown said: “We haven’t raised VAT since 1997. The only party that has raised VAT in the last 25 years is the Conservative Party.

“Our deficit reduction plans add up without having to put up VAT. The Conservative Party plans do not add up without assuming they will put up VAT.”

Mr Brown rejected the suggestion that it was inappropriate to be holding Labour’s manifesto launch in a taxpayer-funded hospital.

He said the Tories were merely “complaining” because the party had “found a wonderful building” in which to stage the event.

“This is a building that is held by the construction firm, that will be passed on to the NHS in the next few weeks,” he added.

Mr Brown dismissed questions over why there is no commitment in the manifesto to keep VAT at the same rate, insisting Labour’s record was “not to raise VAT when there have been difficulties”.

He said the Government had instead chosen to increase National Insurance to help tackle the deficit because it was fairer.

“That is the decision we have taken and I repeat our plans are costed on the basis of not raising VAT.”

Asked how people could trust Labour’s pledges after it created a new top rate income tax, having promised in 2005 that the levy would not increase, Mr Brown said the move had become “necessary” due to the financial crisis.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: “Labour’s manifesto sets out serious plans for supporting the economy and dealing with the deficit through steady economic growth and fair taxation, and is in stark contrast to Tory gimmicks and draconian cuts.

“There are commitments to protect funding for key public services like the NHS, schools, Sure Start and policing. This funding will be critical for supporting jobs, underpinning the economic recovery and improving life for working families.

“The manifesto gives real hope to the unemployed, the low-paid, and young people, through its Future Jobs Fund, apprenticeship schemes, Living Wage policies and guaranteed increases to the national minimum wage.”

Watchdog Criticises PM Over Immigration Figures

(Independent) – PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN was criticised by the national statistics watchdog today for misusing immigration statistics.

Sir Michael Scholar said the PM used data that was "not comparable" in a podcast last week.

The podcast prompted complaints from opposition politicians, who accused Mr Brown of misleading the public on migrant numbers.

In a letter published today, Sir Michael pointed to two errors in the Downing Street internet broadcast.

Mr Brown claimed net inward migration – the number of arrivals minus those leaving – had fallen from 237,000 in 2007 to 163,000 in 2008 and 147,000 last year.

But Sir Michael said the correct figure for 2007 was 233,000. More seriously, he said the 147,000 figure used by Mr Brown was wrong because it was taken from a different data set which has not yet been adjusted.

It was taken from the International Passenger Survey, while the figures Mr Brown used for 2007 and 2008 were Long Term International Migration figures.

In previous years the final LTIM number has been up to 34,000 higher than the IPS data.

Sir Michael wrote that he hoped the political parties would be "careful" in their use of statistics in coming weeks.

He wrote: "I have received representations from several sources about your recent podcast on migration.

"I attach a note, prepared by the ONS, on these statistics. You will see that the note points out that the podcast did not use comparable data series for 2007 to 2009, and that it did not take account of the revised estimate of long-term net immigration for 2007.

"I note that in your speech today you correctly referred to the statistics in respect of migration for the period 2007 to 2009.

"The Statistics Authority hopes that, in the political debate over the coming weeks, all parties will be careful in their use of statistics, to protect the integrity of official statistics."

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said: "Gordon Brown is turning into a serial offender in misleading the British people in the run-up to the election.

"He gave false information to the Chilcot inquiry, his advertising campaign about policing was banned, and now he has given an inaccurate picture of his record on immigration. Britain should expect better from its Prime Minister. No wonder we need change."

Gordon Brown Could Lose And Still Be Prime Minister

(Telegraph) – GORDON BROWN could continue as Prime Minister for weeks even if he loses the election, under Whitehall proposals to prevent a run on the pound in the event of a hung parliament.

Unprecedented contingency plans are being drawn up by the most senior civil servant to avoid any economic crisis if Labour or the Tories are unable to secure a majority.

Officials under the direction of Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, are finalising details to ensure a coalition government can be agreed swiftly. For the first time, opposition parties will be able to call on civil servants to analyse policies that may be part of a deal.

The plans are part of a concerted attempt to ensure there is neither a void at the heart of government nor a need for an immediate second election.

But civil servants have admitted that the constitutional process is so complex and the need for stability so great in the current economic crisis that Mr Brown might have to remain in Number 10 for weeks if he lost power by only a few votes. Sir Gus recently told a Commons committee that it would be up to the Prime Minister to decide when to resign even if the Conservatives were the biggest party in a hung parliament.

There is great concern in Whitehall that there could be a run on the pound if financial markets fear that, without an outright winner, firm action to tackle the public deficit will not be taken. Government sources admit that there is concern about fragile confidence in the City in such an eventuality.

Officials have pointed out that the Queen has the power to block an immediate second election if she believed it would be “detrimental to the national economy”.

Since the turn of the year, the Tory lead over Labour in opinion polls has narrowed, leading to speculation that Britain is on the verge of its first hung parliament for almost 40 years.

As a result, Sir Gus has set out guidance in a new Cabinet manual. Even if David Cameron won the most seats, Mr Brown would not be required to stand down if the Tories did not have an overall majority although he would be likely to do so if they were well ahead of Labour.

Mr Brown has already indicated his desire to carry on as Labour leader even if he was defeated and if he could form a Commons majority in a deal with the Liberal Democrats that would enable him to get his Queen’s Speech through.

The Prime Minister would be given time to do a deal if the Liberal Democrats did not immediately state that they were opposed to striking a bargain with Labour, officials have indicated. There would be a curb on what powers he could exercise until a settled government was formed. Significant policy statements would be vetoed.

Should Mr Brown fail to “command the confidence of the Commons” then Mr Cameron would be asked if he could secure a deal with minority parties to get his plans through.

This process could take weeks so the new rules aim to hasten agreement. By convention, civil servants are neutral and serve the Government of the day.

That would, in this case, still normally be the Prime Minister and ministers – even if Labour no longer had a majority.

But the new rules state that civil servants will also be allowed to assist opposition parties as they try to hammer out a deal. Officials fear the process could be further hampered by the Commons timetable.

Should the election take place on May 6, Parliament would not reassemble until the following week, possibly midweek. Its first task would be to elect a new Speaker, which could take days.

Normally it would simply mean rubber-stamping the incumbent. But such is his unpopularity among Tories that John Bercow could be challenged.

The swearing in of MPs then takes several days.

Throughout that period, Mr Brown would remain Prime Minister if he had not been defeated.

Ministers would remain even if they had lost their seats as MPs. If a coalition government could not be formed, another general election could be called. But there is a desire in Whitehall that this should be a last resort.

The new guidelines make it clear that the Queen could refuse a request for a new election if it were close to the first. The last hung parliament was in 1974 when the Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath lost the Commons in the February general election, failed to form a coalition with the Liberals and resigned several days later.

Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour government and in November asked the Queen for another election.

Gordon Brown Told: ‘Explain why you sold Britain’s gold’

(Telegraph) – GORDON BROWN has been ordered to release information before the general election about his controversial decision to sell Britain’s gold reserves.

The decision to sell the gold – taken by Mr Brown when he was Chancellor – is regarded as one of the Treasury’s worst financial mistakes and has cost taxpayers almost £7 billion.

Mr Brown and the Treasury have repeatedly refused to disclose information about the gold sale amid allegations that warnings were ignored.

Following a series of freedom of information requests from The Daily Telegraph over the past four years, the Information Commissioner has ordered the Treasury to release some details. The Treasury must publish the information demanded within 35 calendar days – by the end of April.

The sale is expected to be become a major election issue, casting light on Mr Brown’s decisions while at the Treasury.

Last night, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, demanded that the information was published immediately. “Gordon Brown‘s decision to sell off our gold reserves at the bottom of the market cost the British taxpayer billions of pounds,” he said. “It was one of the worst economic judgements ever made by a chancellor.

“The British public have a right to know what happened and why so much of their money was lost. The documents should be published immediately.”

Between 1999 and 2002, Mr Brown ordered the sale of almost 400 tons of the gold reserves when the price was at a 20-year low. Since then, the price has more than quadrupled, meaning the decision cost taxpayers an estimated £7 billion, according to Mike Warburton of the accountants Grant Thornton.

It is understood that Mr Brown pushed ahead with the sale despite serious misgivings at the Bank of England. It is not thought that senior Bank experts were even consulted about the decision, which was driven through by a small group of senior Treasury aides close to Mr Brown.

The Treasury has been officially censured by the Information Commissioner over its attempts to block the release of information about the gold sales.

The Information Commissioner’s decision itself is set to become the subject of criticism. The commissioner has taken four years to rule on the release of the documents, despite intense political and public interest in the sales. Officials have missed a series of their own deadlines to order the information’s release, which will now prevent a proper parliamentary analysis of the disclosures.

It can also be disclosed that the commissioner has held a series of private meetings with the Treasury and has agreed for much of the paperwork to remain hidden from the public. The Treasury was allowed to review the decision notice when it was in draft form – and may have been permitted to make numerous changes.

In the official notice, the Information Commissioner makes it clear that only a “limited” release of information has been ordered.

Ed Balls, who is now the Schools Secretary, Ed Miliband, now the Climate Change Secretary, and Baroness Vadera, another former minister, were all close aides to the chancellor during the relevant period.

If the information is not released by the end of April, the Treasury will be in “contempt of court” and will face legal action. A spokesman said last night that the Treasury was not preparing to appeal against the ruling.

Cash For Access Scandal MPs In-Line For Cosy Peerage

(Daily Mail) – THREE DISGRACED FORMER CABINET MINISTERS at the heart of the ‘cash-for-access’ scandal are in line for lavish golden goodbye payments and seats in the House of Lords, it emerged last night.

The Commons authorities yesterday admitted they were powerless to block generous resettlement grants of up to £65,000 each to Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon.

All three were caught on film offering to help private companies access Government in return for thousands of pounds a day.

And Gordon Brown refused to rule out peerages for the three who, as former Cabinet ministers, can expect a cosy berth in the Lords after the election.

The revelations caused outrage at Westminster. David Cameron said the saga had fuelled public perceptions that ‘politicians are sleazy pigs out for their own gain’.

He renewed his call for a full inquiry into the affair and promised the Tories would crack down on lobbying if they win power.

The Tory leader said anyone watching the investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme ‘could not help but be frankly disgusted by what they saw’.

Mr Byers’ said he was ‘like a cab for hire’ and boasted that he had helped National Express and Tesco gain favourable Government decisions – claims denied by ministers and the companies.

Mr Hoon said he was looking to turn his Government contacts ‘into something that, bluntly, makes money’.

Miss Hewitt said she had helped a firm she is paid by win a place on a Government taskforce investigating its area of business.

Last night it emerged that the Government had delayed publishing the annual list of ministerial interests, prompting new allegations of a cover-up.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the former ministers’ had brought Labour and Parliament ‘into disrepute’.

The scandal also provoked fury among grassroots Labour activists.

John Knight, a senior member of Mr Hoon’s local branch of the party, said the former defence secretary had ‘absolutely no affinity or understanding of the people’ he was supposed to represent.

Mr Knight, leader of the district council in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, said: ‘I would like to tell you I was shocked and surprised, but frankly I wasn’t.

‘If we carry on like this, this will be the slow death of the Labour Party.’

Yesterday it emerged that several other former ministers had shown initial interest in working for the fake lobbying firm set up by reporters, though they either withdrew or the meetings were cancelled.

Labour confirmed that Mr Byers, Mr Hoon and Miss Hewitt had been suspended from the Parliamentary-Labour Party, banning them from attending the group’s weekly meetings. However they will not lose the party whip.

They will also still qualify for ‘golden goodbye’ payments when they step down at the election. Mr Byers and Mr Hoon will each receive the £64,766 maximum. Miss Hewitt and MP Margaret Moran, who was also filmed offering to influence policy, will get £54,403.

Downing Street said the Prime Minister ‘completely condemns the claims made by the former ministers’ but saw no reason for an inquiry into the scandal.