Cameron echoes Blair on Bulger

Leaders should avoid using human tragedy for political gain

David Cameron's speech today on Britain's "social recession" bore an unmistakable resemblance to Tony Blair's speech on the murder of James Bulger. As shadow home secretary in 1993, Blair described the murder as "a hammer blow against the sleeping conscience of the nation". Today, Cameron warned that the shocking Edlington case was not an "isolated incident of evil".

Blair was rightly castigated at the time for using the death of a child for political advantage. The argument that the torture and murder of Bulger by two ten-year-old boys was a symbol of the decline of Britain under the Tories was morally and empirically unsound. Such attacks take place without reason or pattern. They are, thankfully, too rare to tell us much about the state of the nation.

But Cameron today insisted that the torture of two young boys near Doncaster was a sign of what's "going wrong" in Britain. He is less vulnerable to charges of political opportunism than Blair because the speech relates to his wider narrative of the "broken society", but Labour has gone on the attack.

Here's Liam Byrne:

When people read what Mr Cameron is saying today, they will see this is quite an unpleasant speech. What Mr Cameron appears to be trying to do is seizing on one absolutely horrific crime and almost tarring the people of Doncaster, if not the people of Britain, with the same kind of standards, and I think that people will recoil from that.

Byrne's attack strikes me as crude and ineffective. There are two good reasons why politicians should not use specific tragedies to make wider political points. First, because such cases are often at odds with broader statistical trends. Figures released yesterday showed that the murder rate in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest for 20 years.

Second, because highlighting individual cases in a dramatic fashion can have unintended consequences. The hysterical response of the Sun and other tabloids to the death of Baby P led to a social work recruitment crisis that continues to endanger children.

I expect some Labour MPs to make these points later today, but in doing so they should be aware that Cameron is following a precedent set by Blair.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.