Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens to face off over religion

Writer and former prime minister to debate role of religion in Toronto.

Despite his recent diagnosis with oesophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens (who I interviewed earlier this year) has continued to debate religious figures, most recently Tariq Ramadan, across the United States.

Now he's due to face the Vicar of Albion himself, Tony Blair. Blair has agreed to debate Hitchens in Toronto on 26 November (the event will be streamed live online) on the motion: "Is religion a force for peace or conflict in the modern world?"

Hitchens was an ardent supporter of Blair's wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, but he has long opposed what he describes as the former prime minister's "sickly piety".

On Blair, he said: "He couldn't do it while he was prime minister, but he went 'over to Rome' as soon as he could. Very bizarrely he did this at one of the most conservative times for the Catholic Church, under one of the most conservative Popes".

"I've never had the chance to sit down and talk it through with him ... It's not like I'm going to be arguing with Pat Robertson. Mr. Blair's a much more complex person than that," he added.

Whether Blair, who hasn't done much jousting since his Commons days, is battle-ready remains to be seen. But either way, one suspects that the encounter will be more respectful than the famous duel between Hitchens ("a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay") and George Galloway ("a sub-Leninist, East End carpetbagger").

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.