Newspaper review: 'Brexit', Philae fears and 'road to hole'

With less than a week to go until the by-election in Rochester and Strood - triggered by sitting Conservative MP Mark Reckless defecting to the UK Independence Party - several papers chew over the vexed issue of Britain's relationship with the European Union.

None more so than the Daily Telegraph, whose political editor Peter Dominiczak sits down with Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to get his views on where the future lies.

Dominiczak writes that when Mr Hammond took the job he thought Britain would ultimately leave the EU, but "following a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations across Europe, he now says he is 'much more optimistic' that Britain can get reforms to the immigration system that will lead to a vote to stay in the EU".

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For it is the issue of free movement of people across the EU that most strains the ties that should bind. And while the foreign secretary tells both the Telegraph and the Daily Mail that Britain will never have full control over its borders while it remains in the European Union, freedom of movement could be limited by "stretching the meaning" of EU treaties.

But the Independent says one of the UK's closest allies in Europe, the Irish Republic, has publically rejected a move to change agreements on inter-EU migration. It quotes the country's Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan as saying that trying to place limitations on freedom of movement "would in my view strike at a basic principle on which the Union is founded".

The Daily Mail's leader column says it "welcomes the fact that - after years spent in utter denial - the political class shows signs of waking up to concerns long voiced by this paper". But the pay-off is more barbed: "Just one question: will the political class actually do something to fix this mess?"

Macer Hall in the Daily Express is sceptical about the real changes that might come from the threat of a "Brexit" from the EU, writing "Eurocrats will do anything to preserve the long-term viability of their federalist dream".

Matthew Parris in the Times says a UK exit from the European Union would leave Germany as the "greatest power" in the bloc and this "would be a nightmare for Berlin" and "the beginning of the end of the EU".

Fears for Philae

The papers are also gripped by a more other-worldly European endeavour - the continuing exploits of the Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at the outer reaches of our solar system.

The latest nerve-jangling issue for followers of the Rosetta craft focuses on the Philae lander, which appears to have come down on the comet in such a way that it is not getting enough sunlight to recharge its onboard batteries.

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"Without sufficient sunlight on its solar panels, its mission will be over", the Guardian notes gloomily. The paper says hope for the mission continuing rests with the craft using built-in springs within its legs to "hop the robotic probe to a sunnier spot on the comet's surface".

Scientists believe Philae is "positioned at an angle with one of its three legs off the ground", says the Independent. The probe needs six or seven hours of sunlight in each 12-hour day, the paper notes, but in its present position it is "only receiving one-and-a-half hours".

Hopping the craft "might make things worse", British scientist Prof Ian Wright tells the Times, "but clearly if you're going to the end there's no harm in having a go".

The Daily Express says it is unclear whether the "fridge-sized craft" has enough power to deliver results back to Earth after it began drilling into the surface of the comet,

Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian says if Philae "expires on the hard, rocky surface of Comet 67P the sadness will be felt far beyond mission control in Darmstadt, Germany".

Several papers pick up on an apology from the Rosetta mission's British lead scientist, Dr Matt Taylor, after he was accused of wearing a "sexist" shirt on the day the Philae probe landed on the comet.

"Rosetta boffin in tears on shirt rap" is the Sun's headline.

The Daily Telegraph says Dr Taylor "may end up being remembered for his sartorial choices rather than his scientific acumen", despite "having helped mankind land on a comet".

Cartoonists and commentators alike ponder the changing of the guard at the top of the Scottish National Party, after Nicola Sturgeon was confirmed as its new leader.

She is replacing Alex Salmond, who quit as party head and first minister after the Scottish people rejected separating from the UK in September's referendum.

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The Times previews Ms Sturgeon's first speech as SNP leader and her belief the nationalists could be kingmakers in a hung UK parliament. It quotes her as saying "what we will need are strong SNP MPs who will stand up to the Tories, challenge the despicable politics of Nigel Farage and fight Scotland's corner".

However, the Independent uses its editorial to suggest the arguments made in the historic independence vote "look as though they will not rest". Attacking the Westminster parties for being "unable or unwilling" to bring forward a plan for greater devolution, it says "the moral case for reopening the independence question grows ever stronger".

Yet the Guardian's leader cautions Ms Sturgeon to "stay cool" and avoid rushing into another plebiscite after the 2016 Scottish parliament election. "To lose one independence referendum may be excusable. To lose a second could quickly leave the SNP with nowhere much to go."

Tropical chill

Russia may have been kicked out of the G8 group of rich nations after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine - and alleged meddling elsewhere in the affairs of its smaller neighbour - but the G20 summit is a place where President Vladimir Putin can still sit at the top table.

Saturday's Daily Mirror says Prime Minister David Cameron is set for a "showdown" with Mr Putin and "likened Russia's behaviour under him to Germany's under Nazi leader Adolf Hitler".

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The Sun is not impressed by the actions of the Russian leader, who it says has brought four warships to this weekend's gathering in Brisbane, Australia. Politicians there are "livid that Russia has sent a fleet into the Coral Sea in international waters near the Gold Coast".

The Independent quotes Mr Cameron as telling reporters "I didn't feel it necessary to bring a warship myself to keep myself safe at this G20 and I'm sure that Putin won't be in any danger".

Moscow says the ships are there for "scientific reasons", reports the Times, which notes they are being shadowed by the Australian armed forces.

The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine - widely blamed on Russia-backed separatists - has added to tensions at the summit.

Australia lost at least 38 citizens in the crash and the country's Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, "has been at the forefront of criticism of Putin", reports the Guardian, which quotes him as saying "Russia would be so much more attractive if it was aspiring to be a superpower for peace and freedom and prosperity... instead of trying to recreate the lost glories of the Soviet Union".

But Guardian writer John Crace says "the warship waving is just that. Waving" and that behind closed doors when issues such as Ukraine are discussed "it will be different... Putin will look down from the chair the Australians deliberately raised, smile sweetly, and say he will look into it".

It is elf and safety gone mad. Not my words, but (almost) those of the Daily Mail, which is among several papers to report that cabbie David Leonard has been "banned" from wearing a white Father Christmas beard this festive season as it would - according to the authorities in Barnsley, South Yorkshire - make him "unidentifiable".

Image caption Picture posed by model

Barnsley Council "had no problem with him wearing a red Santa suit, decorating his cab with lights and baubles or holding a bucket collection", says the paper, but officials said "drivers are required to display their photographic licence at all times".

In an attempt to get round the beard embargo, Mr Leonard tells the Daily Mirror: "I have had to grow my own, which isn't as good. Mine is dark."

The Sun uses the story to take a campaigning stance - which it is calling "Grinchwatch" - and is appealing for readers to tell them if they "know a Grinch who's sucking all the fun out of Xmas".

Surrey has to have the hardest road

A big hole opened up on the M25 on Friday, and Fleet Street's finest have been looking into it.

"Highway to hole" is the headline in the Sun, the Times suggests "road to Hell", while the Daily Express isn't joking with the headline "Chaos for drivers as the M25 cracks up".

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The Daily Mail says the "16-foot crater" opened up across three lanes and caused delays of up to three hours.

"The chaos was caused when a section of road works near Leatherhead in Surrey collapsed in the early hours," says the Daily Express. AA president Edmund King has called for an investigation, the paper notes, and quotes him saying "it is disappointing that not only did the road fail but it placed many drivers in danger".

The Times says "dozens" of motorists were left with punctures and tailbacks stretched for 16 miles. The Highways Agency, which looks after England's main roads and motorways, tells the paper the problem was cause by concrete which had been laid overnight failing to set.

Up to three-quarters of an inch (20 mm) of rain fell in the London area in "just a few hours", reports the Daily Telegraph, and the agency was investigating "whether the heavy rainfall was to blame". Passengers missed flights from near Gatwick airport, the paper notes.

Making them click

Daily Telegraph - Rosetta mission scientist Dr Matt Taylor cries during apology over 'offensive' shirt

Daily Mail - How Trinny Woodall's ex-husband was talked down from same ledge he fell from two weeks before he died after shutting down businesses

The Independent - Vogue responds to 'plus size' backlash with lingerie 'for all shapes and sizes' shoot

The Times - Bring in law to protect under-12s home alone

The Guardian - Rosetta mission: Philae goes to sleep on comet as batteries run out

Daily Mirror - I never knew my hunky boyfriend was born a girl but now we plan to start a family