Falklands

The Express claims an exclusive in a report that Russia aims to offer Argentina long-range bombers.

DEFENCES on the Falklands are being reviewed after it emerged Russia plans to offer Argentina long-range bombers.

The aircraft, which Moscow will swap for beef and wheat, would be able to mount air patrols over Port Stanley.

Ministry of Defence officials fear Buenos Aires would take delivery of the planes well before the deployment in 2020 of the Navy’s 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its F-35B fighters, leaving a “real window of vulnerability”.

Defence cuts have left the Falklands with just four RAF Typhoon fighters,  Rapier surface-to-air missiles and fewer than 1,200 troops, supported by a naval warship that visits throughout the year.

President Putin’s visit to Argentina in July laid the groundwork for exchanging Russian military hardware for wheat, beef and other goods Moscow needs due to EU food embargoes.

The deal involves a lease/lend of 12 Sukhoi Su-24 supersonic, all-weather attack aircraft.

Transport

Following the chaos at Kings Cross rail station, the Telegraph reports that Network Rail could face a huge fine because of ‘overrunning engineering works’.

Network Rail faces multi-million pound fines after an extraordinary day of travel chaos that left tens of thousands of holiday passengers stranded or suffering major delays.

Services were thrown into turmoil on Saturday by severe problems at two of Britain’s busiest stations as thousands of people attempted to travel home or to visit relations after the Christmas break.

King’s Cross, the main terminus for the East Coast line, had to be shut after engineering work overran, while London Paddington was closed for much of the day because of more overrunning works and signal problems.

Finsbury Park, a suburban station in north London, was overwhelmed after rail bosses told all passengers heading for King’s Cross to go there instead.

There were chaotic scenes as thousands of people tried to crowd on to platforms, while thousands more were left queuing outside in freezing temperatures for hours.

Overcrowding became so severe that rail staff were repeatedly forced to close the entrance gates.

Health

The Sunday Times picks up the chaos in the NHS, reporting that hundreds of patients have their surgery cancelled.

MORE than 300 patients a day are having operations cancelled as the National Health Service runs out of beds, official figures show.

Surgeons were forced to delay planned, “elective” procedures 3,113 times in the first two weeks of this month.

This is an average of 311 each working day and a rise of almost 50% on the same period two years ago. The numbers are up 16% in the last year alone.

Another 161 urgent operations — where life, limb or organs were at risk — were also cancelled in the first half of this month, up from 138 last year.

The disclosure comes amid mounting concern about the growing signs of strain in the health service. David Cameron has ordered his two most trusted “fixers” to take charge of winter planning as he seeks to ensure that there is no pre-election crisis in the NHS, Labour’s trump card.

And the Mail reports comments from some doctors that a quadrupling of cases of flu could hit the service even harder.

A surge in the number of flu cases is threatening to push the NHS ‘over the edge,’ doctors warned last night.

Latest official figures show a four-fold increase in the number of flu cases during December, with GPs, facing an extremely busy post-Christmas week at their surgeries, amid fears that hospitals will become log-jammed if the outbreak continues to gather pace.

Medical experts are worried a resurgence of ‘Hong Kong flu’ – a strain known as H3N2 and blamed for the deaths of more than a million people worldwide in the 1960s – could make the situation worse by putting thousands of sufferers into hospital, with the elderly in particular at risk.

Britain has not had a bad flu winter in four years, as more people have developed resistance to the H1N1 swine flu virus, dominant in recent years.

However, scientists say ‘nasty’ H3N2 flu has taken its place – with virulent vaccine-resistant strains also in circulation.

General Election

The Guardian suggests that May’s election could be the e the most unpredictable vote in living memory.

Political pundits are hedging their bets as never before. Their crystal balls reveal only a thick fog of uncertainty. They can agree on one thing – that it is impossible to say who will be prime minister after the election in five months’ time. “The 2015 election is the most unpredictable in living memory,” says Robert Ford, co-author of a book about the rise of Ukip, Revolt on the Right. “Past elections have been close but none has featured as many new and uncertain factors with the capacity to exert a decisive impact on the outcome.”

Since the economic crash of 2008, faith in political leaders and those who run our institutions has collapsed across the globe. In Britain, the trend has been exacerbated by political and banking scandals that have deepened public cynicism. Some of the effects can be seen in opinion polls as the election nears, and a new generation of voters, empowered by the internet, reject traditional parties and their ways.

Labour and the Conservatives together now account for little over 60% of support among the voting public. The decline of two-party dominance has been gradual but continues apace, as insurgent forces enter the field and confuse the picture.

David Cameron and the Tories believe they have two strong suits: the economic recovery and the electorate’s inability to visualise Ed Miliband as PM. But these may not prove decisive. Photograph: Getty

At the 1951 election Labour and the Tories won more than 96% of the vote between them. The Liberals scored 2.6% and others 0.3%. Today the landscape is changed beyond recognition as a period of four- or five-party politics comes into view. These days Labour and the Conservatives each struggle to rise above 35% at best.

2014 saw profound shifts in British politics that few predicted and that have left most politicians nervous about their futures. First came the rise of the anti-EU party Ukip under its populist leader Nigel Farage. Having secured only 3% of the vote in the general election of 2010, Ukip – which advocates the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – stormed to victory in the European elections in May, taking 24 seats with a 27.5% vote share, beating Labour and the Tories into second and third places respectively. As the experts said its bubble would then burst, it went on to win two parliamentary byelections, installing Ukip MPs at Westminster for the first time and cementing its place as a new force.

EU Presidency

With the UK’s turn to take over the presidency of the EU in 2017, The Guardian suggests this would coincide with the country’s planned in/out referendum.

Senior MPs and Foreign Office officials have raised concerns about the UK’s ability to conduct its next six-month presidency of the EU – scheduled for the second half of 2017 – because it is likely to coincide with an in/out referendum if the Tories win the next general election.

The UK is next due to take the chair of EU meetings and business from 1 July 2017 until the end of that year, with UK ministers chairing meetings and taking responsibility for forging agreements among the 28 member nations, as well as setting a British agenda during its period at the helm.

But MPs and senior mandarins believe it could prove unworkable, and that the UK might well have to apply to have the presidency shelved, because David Cameron has promised to hold an in/out referendum by the end of 2017. EU member states take turns to hold the presidency. The last time the UK held the reins was in the second half of 2005.

The Observer has learned that the issue is already causing headaches within the Foreign Office, which is in the initial stages of planning the next UK term as president, amid growing uncertainty about whether the country will even be in the EU after 2017.

A senior Foreign Office source said that, if Cameron were still prime minister and called a 2017 referendum, the ability of UK ministers to serve as neutral chairpersons of EU meetings would be in serious question. “It will be very difficult, and if the prime minister finds himself recommending a British exit it will be unworkable,” said the source.

And in a blow to the Prime Ministers hopes to renegotiation the UK’s place in the EU, the Independent reports that Sweden has successfully  sorted out its own position in Europe.

David Cameron has suffered a further blow to his EU renegotiation hopes after Sweden’s government announced it had reached a deal to prevent snap elections being held in the country.

The Swedish government, led by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, is a coalition between the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, and has indicated it is hostile to David Cameron’s proposals to reform the EU.

The government’s collapse would have given the country’s centre-right opposition Moderate Party and insurgent eurosceptic party the Swedish Democrats an opportunity to make gains and could have led to a change in leadership.

The country’s previous Moderate Party government, led by Fredrik Reinfeldt, was seen as a close European ally to Mr Cameron, who wants to renegotiate EU rules on migration but has had difficulty finding support in other EU countries.

The new Swedish coalition was elected in September but it almost immediately faced problems agreeing a common programme.

Snap elections were planned for next March on the assumption that a deal would not be reached, but they were called off this weekend after the impasse was broken through negotiation.

Crackers!

And finally, as the EU has now classified Christmas crackers as fireworks, youngsters are being told they may not buy them, says the Mail.

It’s the Christmas dinner table accessory that children take most delight in.

But there’s one strange fact about the innocuous Christmas cracker that almost no one in Britain seems to realise: it’s illegal to sell them to anyone under 12.

Thanks to an EU directive, crackers are classified as low-grade fireworks and shopkeepers who sell them to children could be jailed for up to six months or fined £5,000.

The bizarre regulation has led to a number of cases of check-out staff challenging teenagers buying Christmas crackers.

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