Tebbit: "Bercow is no Tory"

A one-time party chairman's tacit Ukip endorsement.

Some of my best friends are Speakers, insisted Norman Tebbit today, before declaring open season on John Bercow and his attempts to keep the UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage at bay.

I paraphrase. Here's what Tebbit actually told BBC1's Politics Show:

I remain a friend of John's and I have been for 20-odd years . . . He did cast himself in my mould, indeed. But he has been reworked in recent years. I don't think he would really be able to describe himself as a Conservative any more, even if he were not the Speaker.

And so to the forthcoming election battle for the Buckingham seat that will see Farage defy convention and take on a sitting speaker. Tebbit, not for the first time putting himself at odds with David Cameron, told the programme:

There is not a Conservative candidate, so they have to look around. And they will make a choice.

I don't think it's any business of the Conservative Party to instruct even its activists and members in who they should vote for in that sense, or indeed campaign for.

As my colleague George Eaton has noted, Bercow is defending the largest Tory majority in the country, so is more than likely to see off Farage, with or without the implied endorsement of a one-time Conservative Party chairman and current star of the blogosphere.

Nor will it do Cameron any harm, in the country at large, to be seen to be in opposition to an "old-school" Tory.

And yet Tebbit's apparent preference for Ukip's man over the modernising Bercow does speak to large sections of the Conservative Party. And not just the grass roots.

For starters -- as our political correspondent James Macintyre reported earlier this year -- there's a small right-wing parliamentary cabal actively plotting to oust Bercow. Moreover, wannabe Conservative MPs remain dogmatically Eurosceptic.

Take this finding from the recent New Statesman/ComRes poll of 101 prospective parliamentary candidates:

Seventy-two per cent agree that as a matter of priority, Britain needs a fundamental renegotiation of its relationship with the European Union.

Despite David Cameron's post-"cast-iron guarantee" words about the Lisbon Treaty, it is fanciful to believe that the Tory leadership shares the view that renegotiation is a "matter of priority".

The grass roots have just scored a notable victory -- Conservative Central HQ has acceded to their wishes and approved strong immigration messages for campaigning in marginal seats.

As the opinion polls narrow, will the calls from Tebbit and co prove equally irresistible?

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.