Alastair Campbell -- overcome by emotion? Really?

It is difficult to take the former spin doctor's emotional outburst at face value.

Alastair Campbell showed his sensitive side on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, getting emotional as he denied that Tony Blair had misled parliament over claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Marr asked the former communications director to clarify his answer to the question put to him at the Chilcot inquiry: if the original evidence did not support the view that there was clear and unambiguous evidence that there were WMDs, did Tony Blair mislead parliament?

The notoriously bullish Campbell had to take a minute to compose himself, breathing deeply as if to hold back tears. "Tony Blair is a totally honourable man," he declared, his breath catching in his throat. He apologised for his emotional state. "I'm a bit upset at this constant vilification . . . I don't think people are interested in the truth any more, people are just interested in settling the score."

It was a strange tack for the man who has batted off sustained criticism for the past seven years, and who defiantly endured five hours of questioning at the Chilcot inquiry two weeks ago without so much as a dampening of the eyes. Given his intimate understanding of the media, it will be difficult for many to believe that this was a genuine, uncontrolled display of emotion.

We are familiar with anger from Campbell -- think of his impromptu appearance at the Channel 4 newsroom in 2003 -- but not this openness about his hurt feelings.

The Tory shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, another guest on the show, made an arch comment: "Many people are upset [about the Iraq war] in different ways, but that must not stop us from debating it."

It's a good point. When he had composed himself, Campbell took issue with the fact that the question was being asked, rather than answering it definitively:

I'm not saying it's not an important question . . . what I'm saying is that the reason people are going over it again and again is that those who disagree with the judgement Tony Blair made don't want to see the other side of the story.

Of course, it is entirely possible that what we saw this morning was genuine: Campbell probably is sick of being asked the same questions. But perhaps saying that he feels victimised is a tactic to close off debate, while showing the humanising "authenticity" that, as he pointed out, the public wants.


Evasion is the name of the game

Campbell was not the only one to be evasive. Hague was typically obfuscatory on the question of Lord Ashcroft's tax status.

He gave a very clear statement on Conservative policy -- that all peers will have to pay tax in the UK -- and said that it will not pose a problem for Ashcroft. However, his refusal to give an outright "yes" or "no" shows continued Tory discomfort with the deputy chairman's current tax status.


UPDATE (3.30pm):

Alastair Campbell has blogged on his appearance on the BBC this morning, saying that it is "frustrating" to be asked the same questions, and that Marr's agenda "was exposed in the way he casually threw in a highly disputed figure about casualties". He says:

So if I appeared lost for words, it was perhaps because there is nothing more to say, and if I had said what I was really thinking about the way the media [have] been covering the inquiry, and the way they cover public life more generally, I might have regretted it. So I let my mind race for a while, controlled the emotions surging around, then carried on.

. . . I do sometimes feel that people in public life are now treated by the media as though somehow they are devoid of humanity, do not have feelings, do not really care about anything.


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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.