Unspontaneous protest

Press freedom in Sri Lanka, mace-wielding John McDonnell, the return of Wegg-Prosser - and much more

A Heath Row

I travel everywhere by organic dow, but don't necessarily expect others to live up to my absurdly high ethical standards, least not the masses of under-sunned Brits for whom the proposed new runway at Heathrow Airport will provide yet more exciting opportunities to flay themselves on Mediterranean beaches.

Not everyone is delighted by this prospect though, and among the political classes a surprisingly broad consensus has emerged against the plan. Green Queen Caroline Lucas compared plans for peaceful protests against the development to those of the suffragettes (er, didn't they throw an axe at the prime minister?), explaining that a new runway: "..would lead to spiralling carbon dioxide emissions, unacceptable noise pollution for millions living in London and the South East and worsening air quality." Other groups joining the 'Climate Rush' include the pleasant Christians at Ekklesia, whose co-director Simon Barrow recently wrote for newstatesman.com's Faith Column about the need to use our wealth for the common good – which presumably doesn't include holidays in Malta.

Rumbold on Pickled Politics felt that supporters of the runway had failed to articulate a plausible case, positing that more efficient airport management could solve many of Heathrow's current troubles. He argued that improved rail networks could help cut the number of flights in and out – obviating the need for the new runway and cutting carbon emissions.

Speculating over the fallout from the pending decision, Iain Dale predicted trouble ahead for Hilary "not a Bennite" Benn. He wrote:

"It's difficult to see how Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband could defend it, but he won't go. The one Minister I can see resigning is Hilary Benn, who has already made his position very clear.

As if that wasn't exciting enough, top celebs like Emma Thompson and TV's Alistair McGowan joined megabucks Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith (the only PPC I've ever seen with an art nouveau font on his website) in buying up tracts of earmarked land to thwart the developers. Will it work? Probably not, but worth a shot.

Thursday saw the project given government approval, provoking the ire of, amongst others, left-winger John McDonnell MP, who reached for the mace in what Iain Dale described as an “unspontaneous protest”…

What have we learned this week?

Terrific news: one of this blog's favourites, Ben Wegg-Prosser has been given a new platform! Labour List, the new enterprise of Derek Draper (unkindly monikered "Dolly" by bloggers of the right) promises posts from Benjamin, though the Moscow-based former Number 10 weblord has yet to contribute. The inevitable tussle between Labour List and the longer-established Labour Home to become the primary online base for activists is "absolutely on" sources behind the project whisper – so it may be worth keeping an eye on.

Around the World

Concerns over the state of press freedom in Sri Lanka peaked this week, with the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, a highly respected journalist who had consistently campaigned to expose corruption and human rights abuses. Chit Chat ran images from the scene, while London-based Rine mourned both his death and the state of government on the island, angrily asking:

"Who do we have at this moment who will fight against the injustice that is a corrupt government terrorising its own people under the veil
of a war?"

Lakimba was less gracious. Acknowledging that: "It is indeed sad news when a human being has been killed prior to their time," he added the caveat, "...even when a person with a twisted mind and a strong anti-Sri Lankan agenda like Mr. Lasantha Wickramatunga".

Videos of the Week

Following President Bush's melancholy and almost ruminative final press conference, numerous YouTubers decided to stitch together retrospectives. This is a rather beautiful look back on his eight baffling years in office.

Back in Britain, the Tories have launched a series of new ads highlighting the scale of the national debt, including this one, in which an adorable infant is born into a life of burdened misery thanks to the prime minister.

Quote of the Week

"Has some charmer organised a denial of service attack on LabourList just as it was being featured live on Channel 4 News? Bit of a coincidence that it should "go down" at the precise moment if there was no mischief afoot. Very strange."

A somewhat paranoid Chris Paul fears online sabotage.

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
Photo: Getty
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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