Labour is the loser from this shameful affair

The irony is that it should have been a good week for Brown

It's no surprise that Gordon Brown remains leader of the Labour Party this morning. This was the third coup attempt against Brown and the most inept yet. As Steve Richards argues in the must-read column of the morning, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have inflicted terrible damage on the party, leaving Labour "the biggest victim".

The reason why the plot failed to prompt a cabinet resignation and attracted only minimal backbench support is that there remains no substantial evidence that Labour would fare better under an alternative leader. The polls show no popular enthusiasm for Harriet Harman, David Miliband or Alan Johnson.

The plot came in what should have been a good week for Brown. He turned in one of his best performances at PMQs, showing signs of the skill and wit that once made him a feared Commons opponent. He embarrassed David Cameron over his equivocations on marriage and tax, which forced the Tory leader to admit on the Today programme this morning that he had "messed up".

And now a new Sun/ICM poll shows Labour cutting the Tories' lead again, this time to 9 points, putting the party within reach of a hung parliament. The poll also confirms what we instinctively know: that Brown's removal would do little to boost Labour's ratings. Some 82 per cent of voters say it would either make no difference or encourage them to vote Labour if he stayed.

The lukewarm cabinet support for Brown confirms the alienation many ministers feel from his premiership, but there is a world of difference between discontent and outright rebellion. It was staggeringly naive of Hewitt and Hoon not to anticipate this reality.

Their intervention has gifted the Tories and Lib Dems the chance to argue again and again that Labour is a divided party at a time when the country needs a strong, united government. It may be a cliché to say that the electorate hates divided governments but, as Peter Riddell reminds us this morning, it is true. Hewitt and Hoon have done more damage to Labour in a day than Cameron could have hoped to achieve all month.

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George Eaton is political editor of 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.