Tony Blair's new faith film competition

The choice of judges confirms that our former prime minister is rather too fond of celebs.

Sometimes it's quite difficult to decide what to make of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Its aim to increase understanding across religious and cultural divides is perfectly admirable. Whether our former prime minister is necessarily the man to do it is, however, debatable.

When not busy raking in enormous amounts of cash from speeches and now an autobiography, Blair has managed to make a lot of noise "doing God" (as he didn't when in office), but not all his fellow believers are convinced that this is helpful to the cause.

Anyway: now the TBFF is launching a film competition called Faith Shorts, open to those aged 25 or under. Entrants are asked to pitch a film about how their faith inspires them. Those shortlisted will be provided with video cameras to shoot their shorts, as it were, and the three winners will be given the opportunity to premiere their work at Bafta in July.

All very good. I'm a little perplexed by the judging panel, though. The members include Queen Rania of Jordan, Jonathan Caplan, Amr Khaled, Jet Li, Wendi Murdoch, Natalie Portman, June Sarpong, Nik Powell and Deepak Verma.

Many of these judges are extremely famous (I've even seen posters of Jet Li in longhouses on Borneo), which is doubtless flattering for all the participants. It is also true that several have a great deal of experience in the world of television and film. But the panel does sound a little short on members with strong religious credentials. It is not exactly in danger of being criticised for its highbrow slant, either.

Maybe I'm being uncharitable. But the choice of judges does not do anything to diminish the suspicion that Blair is rather too fond of hobnobbing with celebrities.

We like our ex-prime ministers to come across as dignified. A little less glitz in the life of the last occupant of No 10 would be welcome -- and especially in the context of a faith foundation, which surely should not be in the business of suggesting that worldly fame is something to be valued in itself.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.