Who is left defending George Osborne?

The economists have deserted him, and business leaders are nowhere to be heard.

So far, we have heard from 13 of the 20 economists who signed the now-infamous letter to George Osborne in the Sunday Times in February 2010, in which they argued that:

[The] government's goal should be to eliminate the structural current Budget deficit over the course of a parliament.

Eleven of the economists responded to the New Statesman's request for a comment, two and a half years on. Of those, nine admitted that the changed situation had caused them to change their minds; one, Albert Marcet of Spain, remained supportive of Osborne; and the eleventh, Oxford's John Vickers, declined to comment either way.

Since then, two further signatories have got in touch with the Daily Telegraph to confirm that they, too, remain supportive. But what of the other seven? Will they admit they got it wrong; stake their colours ever firmer to a dying idea; or take the cowards' way out? We are still waiting to hear from:

  • Sir Howard Davies, then of the London School of Economics, now working for France's Science Po
  • Meghnad Desai, formerly of the London School of Economics
  • Andrew Turnbull, former Cabinet Secretary
  • Orazio Attanasio of University College London
  • John Muellbauer of Nuffield College, Oxford
  • Thomas Sargent of New York University, joint winner of 2011 Nobel prize in economics
  • Anne Sibert of Birkbeck College

The economists aren't the only letter writers who should be embarrassed of their record. What about the 35 businesspeople who signed, corralled by CCHQ, their own letter in October 2010, to the Telegraph, which began:

It has been suggested that the deficit reduction programme set out by George Osborne in his emergency Budget should be watered down and spread over more than one parliament. We believe that this would be a mistake.

This letter was signed by the 34 men and one woman in their personal capacities, but some of them have surely been hit hard by the collapse in confidence which has ensued in the last two years. Andy Bond, ASDA's former chairman, can't be too happy about the impact the weak economy has had on his old company's sales growth, for instance.

Of course, some are unlikely to recant no matter what the evidence. Party-funding transparency website Search the Money reveals that five of the 35 are donors to the Tories, with donations totalling over half a million pounds between them.

Will any of the business leaders recant? The full list, including positions in 2010, is below. The New Statesman awaits their response.

  • Will Adderley, CEO, Dunelm Group
  • Robert Bensoussan, Chairman, L.K. Bennett
  • Andy Bond, Chairman, ASDA
  • Ian Cheshire, Chief Executive, Kingfisher
  • Gerald Corbett, Chairman, SSL International, moneysupermarket.com, Britvic
  • Peter Cullum, Executive Chairman, Towergate
  • Tej Dhillon, Chairman and CEO, Dhillon Group
  • Philip Dilley, Chairman, Arup
  • Charles Dunstone, Chairman, Carphone Warehouse Group, Chairman, TalkTalk Telecom Group
  • Warren East, CEO, ARM Holdings
  • Gordon Frazer, Managing Director, Microsoft UK
  • Sir Christopher Gent, Non-Executive Chairman, GlaxoSmithKline
  • Ben Gordon, Chief Executive, Mothercare
  • Anthony Habgood, Chairman, Whitbread , Chairman, Reed Elsevier
  • Aidan Heavey, Chief Executive, Tullow Oil
  • Neil Johnson, Chairman, UMECO
  • Nick Leslau, Chairman, Prestbury Group
  • Ian Livingston, CEO, BT Group
  • Ruby McGregor-Smith, CEO, MITIE Group
  • Rick Medlock, CFO, Inmarsat; Non-Executive Director lovefilms.com, The Betting Group
  • John Nelson, Chairman, Hammerson
  • Stefano Pessina, Executive Chairman, Alliance Boots
  • Nick Prest, Chairman, AVEVA
  • Nick Robertson, CEO, ASOS
  • Sir Stuart Rose, Chairman, Marks & Spencer
  • Tim Steiner, CEO, Ocado
  • Andrew Sukawaty, Chairman and CEO, Inmarsat
  • Michael Turner, Executive Chairman, Fuller, Smith and Turner
  • Moni Varma,Chairman,Veetee
  • Paul Walker, Chief Executive, Sage
  • Paul Walsh, Chief Executive, Diageo
  • Robert Walters, CEO, Robert Walters
  • Joseph Wan, Chief Executive, Harvey Nichols
  • Bob Wigley, Chairman, Expansys, Stonehaven Associates, Yell Group
  • Simon Wolfson, Chief Executive, Next

Read David Blanchflower's most recent column for the New Statesman, "Perhaps Iain Duncan Smith will accuse me of peeing on the data", here

Lord Wolfson, one of Osborne's defenders. Photograph: Getty Images

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses