Britain and the EU: A long and rocky relationship

 
British and European images (from Thinkstock/Getty Images)

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The United Kingdom's relationship with the EU - or, in political parlance, "Europe" - has long been one of the most divisive, emotive issues in British politics.

Now it is centre stage again, and the debates between Eurosceptic Nigel Farage and Europhile Nick Clegg bring the argument down to a stark, binary choice not seriously faced in decades - In, or Out.

But why does Europe produce such a polarised reaction? Many Britons, on both sides of the debate, love visiting European countries and idolise elements of their culture - not least the food. Indeed, more than 1.5 million Britons have moved there to live.

But Europeans viewing British newspaper coverage, political debates or opinion polls would be forgiven for thinking we have little but contempt for our neighbours. It is, to say the least, a complex relationship.

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The weight of history
18th June 1815: French cuirassiers charging a British square during the Battle of Waterloo The Battle of Waterloo. One of Britain's frequent run-ins with France

Maybe it is the long history of hostilities that clouds the British view of Europe with suspicion. As an empire builder and major trading power it was inevitable that Britain would come into conflict with rivals vying for the same territories and trade routes. And allegiances shifted. All of its main rivals - Germany in the world wars, Russia in the Cold War, and France through most of modern history - have also at times been important allies.

But for many historians the most enduring influence on Britain's self-image is World War Two. And it may be that the popular perception of Britain in its Darkest Hour, standing alone as the British Empire against Nazi Germany in 1940-41, informs a modern view of the UK as its own best friend. And that if anyone can be relied on to come to her aid, it is the United States.

BBC History: British history

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An insular mentality?
The white cliffs of Dover seen from the air The sea separates Britain from Europe and links it with the world beyond

Britain, obviously, is an island nation. Is this the key to its arms-length attitude to Europe? For centuries "we lived in splendid isolation, protected by the Navy and the Empire", the historian Vernon Bogdanor has said. "Now, of course, that period of isolation has long gone, but perhaps it still retains some of its impact upon the British people, who do not want ties with the Continent."

But other members of the EU - Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus - are islands, and they do not object so much to handing powers to Brussels. Perhaps it is Britain's island mentality, combined with that imperial hangover, that is at play - Britain is used to giving orders, not taking them.

Prof Vernon Bogdanor: Britain and the Continent

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An end to war
Centre of Berlin in 1945 War was meant to become "not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible"

The formation of the European Union had its origins after 1945, in the desire to tie Europe's nations so closely together that they could never again wreak such damage on each other. Winston Churchill fully supported this idea, proposing for Europe "a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom... a kind of United States of Europe".

But as the European Coal and Steel Community was forged in 1951, Britain stood on the sidelines; and it declined an invitation to join the six founding nations of the European Economic Community in signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

One of the architects of the ECSC, Frenchman Jean Monnet, said: "I never understood why the British did not join. I came to the conclusion that it must have been because it was the price of victory - the illusion that you could maintain what you had, without change."

Winston Churchill's 1946 Zurich speech (full text)

The Schuman declaration (EU site)

Step by step - how the EU grew

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Britain wants in
General Charles de Gaulle states in 1963 that Britain is not ready to join the Common Market. De Gaulle said Britain was "insular and maritime"

With its own economy stuck in a rut, Britain saw France and Germany posting a strong post-war recovery and forming a powerful alliance, and changed its mind. It applied to join the EEC in 1961, only for entry to be vetoed - twice - by French President Charles de Gaulle. He accused Britain of a "deep-seated hostility" towards European construction, and of being more interested in links with the US.

Britain may have had selfish reasons for wanting to sign up, but then seeking mutual benefits is part of the motivation for the European project. As the historian James Ellison points out, Europe has not just been a place of conflict for Britain over the centuries. "It was also a place of diplomatic agreement, trade, co-operation and - through most of the second half of the 20th Century and the 21st - peace and stability and growth," he says.

James Ellison: Is Britain more European than it thinks?

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Britain gets in
Edward Heath campaigned for Britain to enter and then stay in the EEC Edward Heath promised an economic boom, but it never materialised

Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath finally led Britain into the EEC in 1973, after Gen de Gaulle had left office. When membership was put to a referendum in 1975, it had the support of Britain's three main parties and all its national newspapers. The result was resounding - with more than 67% voting in favour. But that did not end the debate. There was no immediate economic fillip - in fact strikes and power cuts continued, and rising oil prices caused double-digit inflation.

British prime ministers' key speeches on Europe

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Role reversal
Margaret Thatcher, with William Whitelaw and Peter Kirk, at a referendum conference in June 1975 Margaret Thatcher campaigned for EEC membership in 1975
Michael Foot, Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn at the 1980 Labour Party Conference Michael Foot (left) and his left-wing Labour comrades wanted Britain out

In the 1970s, the Conservatives backed British membership - though there was some opposition on the right of the party. The most concerted opposition came from the left of the Labour party, led by Tony Benn and Michael Foot. Mr Foot's 1983 Labour manifesto promised withdrawal from the EEC - by then more commonly called the European Community (EC) - after the pro-Europe wing of the party had split off to form the SDP.

"Europe has been a toxic issue in British politics," Prof Bogdanor says, not just because it caused division between parties, "but also deep divisions within the parties".

"Some might argue that the fundamental conflict in post-war British politics is not so much between left and right as between those who believe that Britain's future lies with Europe and those who believe it does not."

The 1970s - really that bad?

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Rising antipathy
Jacques Delors, and Sun headline from 1 November 1990 Jacques Delors met fierce, but ultimately futile, resistance from Britain

In 1984, Margaret Thatcher corrected what was seen as an injustice, negotiating a permanent rebate for Britain on its EC contributions, because it received much less in agricultural subsidies than some other countries, notably France.

The 1980s saw a growing divide between Britain and Brussels, where the socialist Jacques Delors had taken the helm at the European Commission and was steering towards a more federal Europe and a single currency.

Mrs Thatcher was uncompromising. Her 1988 speech in Bruges, in which she rejected "a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels", has become a seminal text for Eurosceptics. But, with many Europhiles in her cabinet (far more than nowadays), her stance fuelled the Conservatives' internal warfare, and helped lead eventually to her downfall.

Margaret Thatcher's 1988 Bruges speech

Margaret Thatcher's 1988 Bruges speech (full text)

BBC History: Thatcherism and the end of the post-war consensus

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Humiliation

"Black Wednesday" was one of the lowest points in Britain's relationship with Europe. After failing to fend off intense currency speculation, Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont was forced to announce Britain's withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on 16 September, 1992.

Peter Jay reports on the day that became known as Black Wednesday

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1992 and all that
European leaders after a summit agreeing the Maastricht Treaty PM John Major (right) looked happy enough agreeing the Maastricht Treaty

Mrs Thatcher had been unable to stop Europe's march towards political union, and was gone by the time the Maastricht Treaty was signed by her successor John Major in 1992. This involved huge transfers of power to the new European Union. Britain secured opt-outs from the single currency and the social chapter. But to the treaty's critics - including many Tory rebels - it undermined the British tradition of the inviolable sovereignty of parliament.

Treaty of Maastricht

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Building bridges...
Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin A pro-European Tony Blair was well received in Europe - until the Iraq war

Tony Blair followed a landslide election victory in 1997 by quickly patching things up with Europe. He signed Britain up to the social chapter, delivering some of the social protections long coveted on the left, and setting his sights on the euro. But Britain's economy was doing well, support for euro entry was not widespread, and Chancellor Gordon Brown put the plans on hold.

Michael Portillo and William Hague on their Save the Pound tour in 2000 The Tories made clear their opposition to the euro

Brown: I would have quit over euro

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…and burning them?
David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy at a summit in 2010 David Cameron became the first British PM to block a new European treaty

The euro crisis has put paid to any prospect of Britain adopting the single currency, and has perhaps fuelled the Euroscepticism that now apparently runs strongly through parts of the Conservative Party and the public at large.

In December 2011, as EU leaders tried to tackle their problems through a treaty setting new budget rules, David Cameron demanded exemptions and then vetoed the pact. To critics, this cut Britain adrift. But it delighted Eurosceptics and encouraged them to demand more. Soon enough, the prime minister promised a referendum on British membership. Britain's most poisonous political issue was back centre stage.

Britain: Better off out or in?

The BBC will be hosting the Europe debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, on Wednesday, 2 April. You can watch live on BBC News Online, with rolling video and text coverage of the key points, reaction and analysis. There is a BBC News Channel special programme from 18:30 GMT to 21:00 GMT.

 

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  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 600.

    "Britain in its Darkest Hour, standing alone as the British Empire against Nazi Germany"

    Even with everybody telling Britain that Nazis were going to take it down,
    Britain still refused to surrender

    I don't think its the island mentality or imperialism-
    I think its just who the British are in that they don't want to ever surrender

    Britain giving up its independence to EU is Surrendering

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 599.

    de Gaulle was completely right. We should never have joined. Its not a Common Market. A common market is *all* anybody needs.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 598.

    Asif Smith @ 580:
    "Can you name a few that prevent people from working?"

    ############

    Wanted office in High St.
    Small shop: toilet, kitchen, store room & front as office.

    To employ receptionist/secretary, plus two programmers.

    Had to provide two toilets, ramps & wide access.

    Didn't bother.

    And yelling at Van Rompuy is worth my tax contribution.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 597.

    590. Scarlet_Pimpernel
    "you define 50 Acts as the sole influence"

    ==

    Of course not read my post. The UK passes around 50 Acts a year, each consisting of many laws, and has been doing so for decades. Of course they have to be compatible with ECHR (in or out of EU) and EU law, but so must they be with much more existing English etc. law. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of them.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 596.

    Exactly Lucy J,its the EU way to bludgeon with a stick (Switzerland daring to see to its own concerns) rather than 'co-operate' as 'partners'.The entire flavour of the EU experiment has been unsavoury and brutish in application.An un-level playing field with vastly incompatible economies/cultures and rule by diktat.The pantomime of MEPs 'representing' Europeans lost credibility a long time ago.

 

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  61.  
    09:36: 'Looking for a new saviour' The Daily Mail

    Today presenter John Humphrys has written for the Daily Mail on the influence smaller parties and voters in seaside towns are likely to have on the election. He writes: "From Clapton to Cleethorpes, the seaside towns of the east coast appear to be looking for a new saviour. And that saviour may well be clad in UKIP colours." More here.

     
  62.  
    @AndrewSparrow Andrew Sparrow, writer of the Guardian's Politics Live blog

    tweets: A seat projection round-up - All suggest Lab + others cd block Tory Queen's Speech, but not vice versa

     
  63.  
    09:27: Blunkett: 'I wish I'd been more diplomatic' The Daily Telegraph

    The Telegraph is interviewing a number of MPs who are standing down at the election. Today, former home secretary David Blunkett reveals how much of an impact his blindness had on his career, saying it had an effect on the way he interacted with colleagues . And he tells the website he wishes he had been more "diplomatic" - "I wasn't good with colleagues in cabinet," he says. More here.

     
  64.  
    09:19: 'Where is the master plan?'

    Is David Cameron's plan to build 200,000 starter homes in England before 2020 too modest? In its leader today, the Daily Mail asks if more needs to be done. The paper writes: "Where is the master plan to incentivise developers to build on the thousands of acres of derelict industrial land lying idle?" More here.

     
  65.  
    09:15: 100 constituencies in 100 days BBC Radio 4 Today

    BBC Radio 4's Today programme is visiting 100 constituencies in the run-up to 7 May. Today, reporter Sanchia Berg looks at the lack of grammar schools in Sevenoaks. You can listen to her package here.

     
  66.  
    09:08: Human rights reform

    What has happened to Chris Grayling's plans to reform human rights laws? Writing for Law Gazette, Joshua Rozenberg suggests the lack of movement on the promised Bill of Rights could spell the end of Mr Grayling's tenure as justice secretary. More here.

     
  67.  
    @LSEge2015 London School of Economics' 2015 general election coverage

    tweets: "That electoral registration rates have declined over the past year is disturbing" More here. #GE2015

    Graph showing decline in voter registration between 2013 and 2014
     
  68.  
    08:57: Register to vote campaign

    People aged 18 are being urged "use your age wisely" by taking part in the election on 7 May via a Facebook campaign. Michael Abbott, head of campaigns at the Electoral Commission, said: "We saw at the Scottish Independence Referendum that young people can be one of the most passionate and engaged groups in our democracy, but they need to know that they can only have a say if they're registered. Turning 18 is an important rite of passage for young people, and gaining the right to vote in a General Election year is a huge part of that." For anyone looking to register, you can do so here.

     
  69.  
    08:43: Terror deal Norman Smith BBC Assistant Political Editor

    The government's former reviewer of terror legislation, Alex Carlile, has called for a cross-party deal over extra powers for the security services. Lord Carlile said the parties should agree to work together as they did to counter terrorism in Northern Ireland. He called for a consensus to be reached over new powers to monitor people's internet and email usage with a fresh Communications Data bill.

    Lord Carlile - a Liberal Democrat - also said it had been a mistake to replace control orders which had been done for "merely political reasons." Had they not been repealed, he said, "Jihadi John" would probably have been subject to a control order.

     
  70.  
    08:37: 'Cusp of revolution' The Daily Telegraph

    Politics Live readers will know there is plenty to keep us busy in the wider political world in the run-up to 7 May. But, writing for the Telegraph today, Alex Proud argues that the same is not true in the hallowed halls of Westminster itself. He writes that, beyond "the usual partisan babble" and media coverage, "you can hear a pin drop in Parliament. Tumbleweeds blow down Whitehall." Mr Proud reckons that is out of touch with the country at large, where "we appear to be on the cusp of a genuine revolution". More here.

     
  71.  
    08:32: 'Broken, confused, unfair' The Times

    What should happen to the UK's immigration system? Today's The Times leader says the system is "broken, confused, unfair and so politically fraught that coalition ministers can scarcely talk about it, let alone reform it". You can read the paper's take here (subscription required).

     
  72.  
    08:26: 'Braced for defeat' The Mirror

    "David Cameron would be hammering on the doors of TV studios to demand election debates if he was half as good as he pretends he is and Ed Miliband was anywhere near as poor as the Conservatives smear him," says Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror. In a scathing comment piece, he confidently predicts: "Behind the hype, the Tories are braced for defeat. A Conservative leader who couldn't win outright in 2010 won't in 2015."

     
  73.  
    08:23: If I were prime minister... The Independent

    Natasha Devon is today's "If I were prime minister" columnist in the Independent. The author and TV pundit criticises mainstream political leaders for "constantly banging against the glass of public opinion, watering down their policies, pleasing no one (apart from the super-rich)". Were she in charge of the country, Ms Devon writes, she would be like Margaret Thatcher: "What I mean is, I'd stand for something." More here.

     
  74.  
    @steve_hawkes Steve Hawkes, deputy political editor of the Sun

    tweets: Times' @RSylvesterTimes says Theresa May sole supporter of PM's immigration goal in Cabinet. Remember, Boris a big fan too, outside of it

     
  75.  
    08:10: SNP on Brown plans

    On Gordon Brown's North Sea plans, SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie says: "As a chancellor who treated Scotland's oil as a cash cow, imposed the supplementary tax on the North Sea industry in the first place, then doubled it - and left office having failed to set up an oil fund to deliver any long-term benefit from our own natural resources - Gordon Brown is responsible for undermining investment in this vital industry." And he adds: "Whatever good ideas Mr Brown has now, by definition he didn't implement them in the 13 years when he was chancellor and prime minister."

     
  76.  
    @georgeeaton George Eaton, political editor at the New Statesman

    tweets: Gisela Stuart floats idea of a Labour-Tory grand coalition. Not going to happen; would be a gift to Ukip, SNP and the Greens.

     
  77.  
    08:08: Gordon Brown on oil fund
    Gordon Brown

    Former prime minister Gordon Brown will be giving one of his last speeches before stepping down as an MP later. Mr Brown, who played a key role for the "No" campaign in the final days before Scotland's independence referendum, will be talking today about the creation of a North Sea reserve fund to help the oil industry. Mr Brown thinks the fund would help maintain and upgrade infrastructure and could provide last-resort debt finance for companies who want to keep fields open. He believes the UK government could even take over fields in partnership with some firms in order to keep them open and viable in future.

     
  78.  
    08:07: Tidal tale

    We mentioned the government's enthusiasm for tidal power earlier. If, like us, it's been a while since you did A-level geography, here's how it works.

     
  79.  
    08:01: 'Lovely' Clegg The Huffington Post
    Tim Farron

    The Huffington Post has been speaking to Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron - widely seen as a possible successor to Nick Clegg as party leader. He says a lot of the speculation surrounding his future is "nonsense" which should be taken "with a pinch of salt". Mr Farron also tells the site Mr Clegg has been "absolutely lovely" the rumours. More here.

     
  80.  
    @tnewtondunn Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of the Sun

    tweets: "We must slash our armed forces, yet PM has locked us into £5bn of perks for pensioners who've never had it so good" More here.

     
  81.  
    07:54: Marmite Farage

    Describing David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg as "vanilla", Nigel Farage suggested he might be seen as "marmite" - "some people love it", he adds.

     
  82.  
    07:46: Farage on immigration
    Nigel Farage

    Nigel Farage also discussed the impact of immigration on GMB, saying it could have a positive effect. He added: "If you control immigration sensibly and do it properly it can be a benefit to to the country, and it can enrich the culture too, no argument about that."

     
  83.  
    07:42: Farage on family

    During his Good Morning Britain interview, Nigel Farage spoke about the impact of his political commitments on his family life. He told the programme: "To be honest with you, I think my whole family would rather I had never gone into politics."

     
  84.  
    @EmmaReynoldsMP Emma Reynolds, shadow housing minister

    tweets: Cameron & Shapps have no idea how to deliver new starter homes at a discount. A record number of young people in 20s/30s live wt parents.

     
  85.  
    @patrickwintour Patrick Wintour, political editor of the guardian

    tweets: PSA survey of 500 experts produces mean Labour 282.3 seats, Con 278.4, LD 24.8, Ukip 6.6, SNP 28.7, Plaid 3.3, Green 1.9, Others 13.4

     
  86.  
    07:33: 'Not a good PM'

    Nigel Farage was asked by Good Morning Britain if he'd like to be prime minister. His reply? "I don't think that's my role in life, I don't think I'd be very good at it either."

     
  87.  
    @robindbrant Robin Brant, BBC political correspondent

    tweets: @Nigel_Farage struggling to answer when @GMB ask him to describe a benefit of other races & cultures in the UK

     
  88.  
    07:25: One in, one out?
    House of Lords

    Should new peers only be admitted to the House of Lords when one stands down? The idea has been floated this morning by Baroness D'Souza, the Lords speaker. Writing for The Telegraph, she says the chamber has an "image problem", but does "valuable work in holding governments to account". She writes of a potential one "'one in, one out" policy: "This would not reduce the size of the House in the immediate future, but it would at least limit its expansion."

     
  89.  
    07:21: Tidal lagoons

    Ed Davey, the energy secretary, has been speaking to the BBC about plans to generate electricity from the world's first series of tidal lagoons in the UK. The lagoons will capture incoming and outgoing tides behind giant sea walls, and use the weight of the water to power turbines. A £1bn Swansea scheme, said to be able to produce energy for 155,000 homes, is already in the planning system. Mr Davey told BBC News: "I can't make a decision on this yet because discussions are ongoing. But I'm very excited by the prospect of tidal power. We have got some of the biggest tidal ranges in the world and it would be really useful if we could harness some of that clean energy."

     
  90.  
    07:19: Banking tax explainer
    The city

    Here's a bit more on the Liberal Democrat plan to tax banks to pay off more of the deficit and how it would work. Corporation Tax is applied on a company's annual profits and is set to fall 1% to a rate of 20% from next month. But the Lib Dems say they wish to impose an additional corporation tax rate of 8% on banks only from April 2016. The party says this measure would raise £1bn a year and would go towards closing the structural budget deficit of £30bn. It said because failings in the banking system had caused the financial crisis, it was fair that banks helped repair the economy. Banks already pay a bank levy which has yielded £8bn over the past four years. The Conservatives may resist the proposals though. They've said they would cut the deficit solely by reducing spending. Labour says it would tax bank bonuses and re-impose the 50p top rate of income tax.

     
  91.  
    07:14: 'Drop migration target'
    Ken Clarke

    Elsewhere this morning, Ken Clarke has said David Cameron's net migration target should be dropped. Mr Clarke, a former home secretary, said it would be impossible to reach without "severely" damaging the UK economy. He told the Times: "I am afraid that the net migration target has proved to be a mistake. It has been defended to me as almost returning to the figures to those when I was home secretary. This is true, but we weren't in a globalised economy then to the extent we are now. We will have to drop the target. It would not be possible to achieve it without damaging our economy quite severely."

     
  92.  
    07:11: 'Beauty contest of ideas' Ross Hawkins Political correspondent, BBC News

    Despite us thinking we're a nation of homeowners, the proportion of people who actually own their own home, and live in it, has been falling in England for more than 10 years now as house prices have rocketed up. Labour have actually outbid the Conservatives by far on the number of homes they say that they would build - they are promising 200,000 homes a year by the end of the next Parliament and they say they have a plan to do it. You won't hear anyone today say the housing market is just fine, there isn't a problem here. You'll see a beauty contest of ideas, if you like, to sort it out." More on the housing announcement.: "

     
  93.  
    @campbellclaret Alastair Campbell, former Labour spin doctor

    tweets: Hope he never gets chance but would be interesting to see if @David_Cameron meets his 200k housing pledge as quickly as NHS waiting pledge

     
  94.  
    06:52: Defence spending
    Raymond Odierno

    Over the weekend, former defence secretary Liam Fox warned of a potential Tory rebellion if defence spending targets are not met. And now the head of the US Army - Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno - has said he is "very concerned" about the impact of cuts in Britain. He said the falling proportion of the UK's national wealth being spent on the military could mean British troops end up operating within US ranks, rather than divisions working alongside each other. More here.

     
  95.  
    06:46: Newspaper review
    Metro and Telegraph fronts

    Just sitting down for your first coffee of the day? Here's our overnight newspaper review, featuring today's announcement on homes from the Conservatives and a warning on UK defending spending.

     
  96.  
    @rosschawkins Ross Hawkins, BBC political correspondent

    tweets: Housing on @BBCBreakfast - part of the reason you can't afford a home: building not yet back at pre crash levels

    Graph from Twitter
     
  97.  
    06:28: Bank tax
    Danny Alexander

    The Liberal Democrats have announced plans to tax Britain's banks with an additional £1bn levy. Danny Alexander, the coalition's chief secretary to the Treasury, wants to effectively strip banks of the benefit of recent corporation tax cuts. The money, the Lib Dems say, would be used to pay off the deficit. More here.

     
  98.  
    06:25: Housing pledge
    Generic homes

    Later, David Cameron will promise to make 200,000 homes available to first-time buyers in England by 2020 if the Conservatives win the election. Plans for 100,000 cut-price homes for people under 40 have already been announced by the coalition. Labour has pledged to build 200,000 new homes by 2020, while the Lib Dems have set out plans to build 300,000. More here.

     
  99.  
    06:20: Good morning

    Hello and welcome to a fresh Monday's political coverage. Nick Eardley and Victoria King will bring you all the action, reaction and analysis in text and you'll be able to watch and listen to all the main BBC political programmes, from Today and Breakfast through to Newsnight and Today in Parliament. Don't forget you can get in touch by emailing politics@bbc.co.uk or via social media @bbcpolitics. Here's how Sunday unfolded.

     

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