What Brown could say tonight

Can he turn nightmare into opportunity?

So, can Gordon Brown turn his worst nightmare into his greatest opportunity? On the face of it, "bigotgate" has almost no redeeming features. It could, admittedly, have been worse: he could have sworn. And as Charles Kennedy said minutes before I was about to join the debate on Sky News this morning, the public may warm to his "human" side, and be somewhat repelled by what in some cases could be seen as a form of bear-baiting.

Tonight's debate in Birmingham, meanwhile, presents one last crucial chance for Brown to connect with the electorate. This otherwise unlucky politician can be thankful, at least, that such a spectacular and media-friendly "gaffe" did not happen after it.

Nonetheless, and although Brown has today said "yesterday was yesterday", yesterday will arguably haunt him tonight, unless he deals with it straight away. If he can do that, as Kennedy said, he can then expect to move on to the substantial issues and not be hounded about it throughout the hour-and-a-half-long programme.

With luck, Brown can instead move on to the economy and dominate the debate. But first, if I was advising Brown (and luckily for him and me I am not), I would encourage him to start by saying something like this:

I want to address the British people directly, about an area that I am usually not comfortable discussing in public: character.

Yesterday, I made a bad mistake. After hours of campaigning on the road, and after misunderstanding some perfectly innocent remarks, I allowed my frustrations to get the better of me in the privacy of my car. I do not blame the 24-hour media for picking up on it; I blame only myself. Why? Because I betrayed myself.

I ask you to believe me when I say that my anger is my passion: passion for the values of fairness that are deeply ingrained in my character. And they are the same values of the majority of the British people -- a great people whose sense of decency and justice sometimes struggles to be heard above the shouting in politics and the media.

I am for middle and modest earners, for those who work hard, for those who take responsibility. And that is why I take responsibility for my own flaws. I am very far from perfect.

But in the past 24 hours, I have learned something about myself. I have in the past been, at times, too aggressive, too impatient. And in turn, I have promised myself and I promise you now: I will always strive to improve.

Because in the end, this great country's future is too important to be about personality: but it is partly about character.

And I live to serve: to get up early every morning and fight hard for British values, and not go to bed until the day's fighting has been done. Tonight, I humbly ask you to let me serve, and together we can change Britain for good.


James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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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.