Osborne emerges unscathed from Leveson

The Tories will be delighted with the Chancellor's calm performance.

Given the potential for upset, the Conservatives will be delighted with how well George Osborne's appearance at the Leveson inquiry went. The Chancellor, who was evidently well-prepared, gave an impressively calm performance that will go way some to restoring his diminished political reputation.

There were no bombshells, no revelations of inappropriate contact with the Murdochs, and Osborne successfully fielded a series of questions on Jeremy Hunt and Andy Coulson. Asked why Hunt was given responsibility for the BSkyB bid, he passed the buck to the then-permanent secretary, Jeremy Heywood, who advised that the Culture Secretary should be handed control. Hunt's publicly-expressed support for the bid was "not considered" a problem, although Osborne notably added that the inquiry would need to ask David Cameron about the legal advice he received on the subject.

On Coulson, he argued persuasively that the former News of the World editor was hired principally for his journalistic nous, not for his News International contacts ("which were already well-established"). The Chancellor, who told the inquiry that he remained "a friend" of Coulson ("though sadly I have not been able to speak to him for a year"), expressed genuine regard for Coulson's abilities as a spinner. As Rafael wrote recently, the Tories feel sorrow, rather than anger, at his downfall.

Osborne revealed that he asked Coulson whether there was "more in the phone-hacking story that was going to come out" and accepted his assurances. He added that he assumed that there was nothing more to be revealed because of statements from the Press Complaints Commission and the trial of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. In a missed opportunity, Robert Jay QC did not go on to ask Osborne whether he changed his view when the Guardian revealed that phone-hacking went far beyond "one rogue reporter". We already know from Coulson's testimony that Cameron, perhaps afraid of what he would learn, sought no further assurances at this point.

Cameron and those who advised him (including Osborne) remain guilty of showing terrible judgement by appointing Hunt and Coulson to their respective positions. The Murdoch scandal continues to dog every attempt they make to relaunch their moribund government. It has provided, and will continue to provide, Labour with an endless stream of bad news stories. But, for now, the Tories will be relieved that Osborne's appearance merely confirmed, rather than deepened, their woes.

Chancellor George Osborne leaves after giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.