Brown goes on the attack at Leveson

The former PM's desire to settle scores made this a remarkable performance.

Gordon Brown, who has made few public statements since leaving Downing Street, has come to the Leveson inquiry with an unashamed desire to settle scores. In the first hour of his testimony, he "absolutely" denied that the Sun received permission from him or his wife to run a story on his son's cystic fibrosis, denounced James Murdoch's MacTaggart lecture as "breathtaking in its arrogance and ambition" and quipped that "You can serve up dinner, but you can't serve up BSkyB as part of the dinner."  And there was more - the former Prime Minister told the inquiry that he had passed to a recording of Sunday Times reporters discussing "illegal (newsgathering) techniques" to the police, and contradicted Rupert Murdoch's claim that he told him he had no choice but to "make war" on his company after the Sun's defection to the Tories (one wonders if the inquiry will adjudicate on this point). Brown's prodigious memory (we haven't once heard the words "I can't recall") and righteous fury have made this one of the most remarkable performances of the inquiry.

The most difficult moment for Brown came when he was challenged on why he and his wife continued to regularly socialise with News International executives even after the Sun's story on their son. Brown replied that his wife was "one of the most forgiving people I know", an answer that some will find implausible. Was it not, rather, that Brown was so determined to win over the media that he cynically forgave even their gross abuse of his family's privacy?

Asked about his relationship with Murdoch, which was far warmer than Blair or Cameron's, Brown said it was "faintly ridiculous" to suggest he was influenced by Murdoch's views. In an amusing line, he quipped that Murdoch would have us at war with France and Germany and have Scotland as the "52nd state" (independent and Atlanticist). Of his similarly warm relationship with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, he said Dacre was "personally very kind" but rightly noted that this did nothing to diminish the ferocity of the Mail's attacks on Labour. Even more than Blair, Brown acquired a reputation as a media obsessive. But, he insisted, he is "so obsessed by the newspapers that I rarely read them".

Along the way, Brown has also taken the time to remind us of his opposition to euro membership and to defend his Afghanistan policy. The former PM appears to have seized an opportunity to deliver a state-of-the-nation address, leaving Robert Jay QC often struggling to keep him on topic.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown at the Leveson inquiry this morning. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.