Mandelson bites back at the Sun

A virtuoso performance but Labour should end its neurotic focus on the tabloid

Lord Mandelson gave a bravura performance on the Today programme this morning, railing against the "crude politicking" of the Sun. Is he right to claim there's a "contract" between the paper and the Conservatives? Essentially, yes. As I've noted before, David Cameron's plan to freeze the television licence fee and, even more, his pledge to abolish Ofcom are remarkably convenient for the Murdoch-owned Sky.

Mandelson said: "What the Sun can do for the Conservatives before and during the election is one part of that contract. And presumably what the Conservatives can do for News International if they are elected is the other side of that bargain." Spot on.

He was also right to argue that the Sun exculpates the Taliban when it focuses so relentlessly on equipment failures in Afghanistan."If you read the Sun, you would think that the enemy that our brave troops on the ground are fighting is the British government," he said. (Incidentally, this criticism also applies to Jacqui Janes, who spoke as if Gordon Brown, rather than the Taliban, was personally responsible for the death of her son.)

Much as I enjoy Mandelson's sharp turn of phrase, I think it's time for Labour to end its neurotic focus on the Sun. Ministers cannot claim that the tabloid has little or no influence on elections and then devote appearance after appearance to trashing its editorial stance.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.