Johnson vs the London Irish: Mehdi Hasan on Boris's latest blunder

Memo to the Mayor: not all Irish people are members of Sinn Fein.

If you haven't read Jemima Khan's interviews with Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone in this week's New Statesman, you really should. The Livingstone interview hasn't attracted the best of headlines for the Labour candidate - "Ken Livingstone in Tory 'riddled with homosexuals' row" - but it is ludicrous to accuse Ken of being homophobic or bigoted on the basis of a single, ill-advised, badly-phrased comment. On the other hand, it is worth pointing out that his Tory opponent Johnson has, in the past, referred to black people as "piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles" and declared, in a discussion on 7/7, that "Islam is the problem".

Boris's interview with Jemima also contained a line that some might say was offensive to London's Irish community:

"I'll tell you what makes me angry - lefty crap," he thunders in response. Like? "Well, like spending £20,000 on a dinner at the Dorchester for Sinn Fein!"

Is the mayor referring to the annual St Patrick's Day Gala Dinner, the £150-per-ticket black tie event that ran between 2002 and 2008 and was, ahem, self-financing? The dinner that Boris cancelled in 2009 to save money despite the fact that it was, um, er, self-financing? The dinner that wasn't held "for Sinn Fein" but at the request, and for the sake, of the Irish community of Kilburn, Cricklewood and other parts of the capital?

Now, you can agree or disagree with the idea of a special, sponsored, annual dinner for London's Irish community but to dismiss it, out of hand, as "lefty crap" and "for Sinn Fein" isn't just wrong but offensive. Irish footballers, television stars, singers and politicians from across the spectrum attended the dinner, including, I'm told, Pauline McLynn (from Father Ted), Dermot O'Leary, Bob Geldof, the mayor of Dublin and the Irish ambassador to the UK.

As a spokesman for Ken Livingstone pointed out, when I mentioned the Boris line to him:

To call the annual, self-financing, St Patrick's Day dinner "lefty crap" is both profoundly ill-informed and also an attack on Irish Londoners and their contribution to this city. Irish Londoners came together to celebrate the part they play in the life of London - and Boris Johnson has slapped them in the face. He is out of touch and ignorant of the facts.

I'm not Irish but I am Muslim. I know what it's like to be casually stereotyped - not every British Muslim is an Islamist and not every person of Irish descent is a Provo. The mayor of this great and diverse city should know better.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.