The perils of prediction

Remember when Sky News reported that Alan Johnson had won the deputy leadership?

After 109 days of waiting, Labour finally gets a new leader today. Although the special conference opens at 4pm in Manchester, we're not expecting a result until around 4.40pm. The announcement will take this long because the results in each of the three sections (MPs/MEPs, party members and affiliated trade unionists) are explained separately. The candidate with the lowest vote will be eliminated and his or her voters redistributed until one candidate achieves 50 per cent of the vote in the electoral college.

Sky News's Jon Craig reports that Ed Miliband has won the big prize. He tweets: "It's Ed! A senior Labour Party figure tells me the younger brother has beaten David. Labour's Cameron? I'd say so."

I both hope and expect he's right (my prediction has always been that Ed will win on second preferences), but it's worth remembering that the same news organisation mistakenly reported that Alan Johnson had won the deputy leadership in 2007.

As Kevin Maguire recalls in his NS column this week:

Sky did a deal with Alan Johnson's enforcer, Gerry Sutcliffe, to receive a signal as the hopefuls left a briefing room before entering the hall - if Sutcliffe departed wearing glasses, Johnson had won. Reeling at a narrow defeat, Sutcliffe forgot and emerged four-eyed. So Sky News wrongly reported that Johnson had triumphed.

The ever-cautious BBC won't make such an error. Nick Robinson told the Today programme this morning that he "simply has no idea" who will win.

I'll be blogging on the leadership throughout today and my colleague James Macintyre will be reporting directly from Manchester. We'll bring you the result as soon as it's announced (we expect) at 4.40pm.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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