Why bring back Blair now?

The PM will antagonise the voters Labour needs to win back

Tucked away in the Mirror's interview today with Peter Mandelson is confirmation that Tony Blair will return to British politics to campaign for Labour in the general election.

The First Secretary of State (what a wonderfully Soviet-style title that is) revealed:

We want all the party's leadership -- past and present -- to be contributing. They know as well as anyone what is at stake for the country. Everyone will get stuck in. Everyone will campaign: Tony Blair, John Prescott, David Blunkett.

I doubt that Blair's return will do Labour any good. There is a genuine risk that the Iraq inquiry will dissuade voters who deserted the party over the war from returning to the fold. In seats such as Bethnal Green and Bow, which George Galloway's Respect took from Labour in 2005, the war is likely to return as an election issue. Blair's presence on the campaign trail will only exacerbate the damage to the party.

As the psephologist John Curtice has pointed out, voters -- regardless of their precise position on the war -- will generally be reminded of an episode of government incompetence.

To his credit, Blair, unlike Margaret Thatcher, who haunted her party as a "backseat driver", has so far refused to interfere in Labour affairs. He should not abandon this stance. The only winners from his return would be the Liberal Democrats.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.