Claws out: five top 'PM under attack' quotes

Politicians say the nastiest things . . . about each other

It would be an absolute effing disaster if Gordon Brown was PM, and I'll do anything in my power to effing stop him.

So said the mystery minister to Nick Robinson in 2006. Now, the former defence secretary John Hutton has admitted that it was he, after intensive questioning on Eddie Mair's radio show. The confession came with the caveat that he has now changed his opinion: "I think he has been a tremendously hard-working man, who has really put his heart and soul into it."

Robinson, on his blog (which also has the full transcript of the Mair interview), says:

This is more than mere historical trivia. Hutton resigned from Brown's cabinet on the same day as James Purnell walked out calling for a change of leadership. Had Hutton backed Purnell's view -- or, indeed, publicly repeated any of his private views -- we would now in all probability have a different man leading the country.

But there is nothing wrong with a bit of historical trivia, I say, so here we go. You'd think politicians would behave with a little diplomacy. But whether it's members of their own party, or other heads of state, they are slating each other all over the place.

Here are my top five quotes about British PMs -- from other politicians. Please do share any other suggestions below.

1. Alas, poor Gordon. In a verbal echo of Hutton's comments, the former home secretary Charles Clarke used an article in the New Statesman last year to say that: "Labour's current course will lead to utter destruction at the next general election". He doesn't mention Brown by name, but in case you were in any doubt, he goes on to describe "a deep and widely shared concern -- which does not derive from ideology -- that Labour is destined to disaster if we go on as we are".

2. "What does she want, this housewife? My balls on a tray?" Jacques Chirac, then prime minister of France, made this delightful comment about our very own Maggie Thatcher during the February 1988 Brussels summit. Misogynistic? Naaah.

3. Although, that said, she's not so lovely herself. "I've got my teeth into him, and I'm not going to let go," said Thatcher of Edward Heath during the Tory leadership contest in 1975. Frightening stuff. She followed it up in 1979 when she was safely ensconced, with the cutting comment: "When I look at him and he looks at me, I don't feel that it is a man looking at a woman. More like a woman being looked at by another woman."

4a. "Yo, Blair." Oh, Dubbya. George W Bush was caught on tape at the G8 conference in 2006 using the casual greeting with Tony Blair -- evidence of that irksome special relationship. Suffice to say that the tabloids were not impressed.

b. On a more serious note, Blair got his fair share of criticism from within the party, too. In 2005, during the dispute over extending the detention of terror suspects to 90 days, Peter Kilfoyle, a former junior defence minister, said:

Any reality check should start at No 10. The Prime Minister is out of touch with his own party and both Houses. He can't keep playing the loyalty card. He said after the May election he had listened and learned. If he listened, he hasn't learned the right lessons.

5. And finally -- turning the tables. In 1993, the then prime minister, John Major, branded three unnamed cabinet ministers (thought to be Michael Portillo, Michael Howard and Peter Lilley) "bastards". Good on him.


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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer 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.