Cameron is for turning

The government’s cuts are worse than Thatcher’s, but Cameron and co are vulnerable to opposition.

In the run-up to the general election, Labour made headway when the Tories were forced on to the ground of cuts and the risk to the economy – and moved backwards when the Tories forced Labour on to the ground of the deficit and cuts. Now that the reality of the cuts and the threat they pose to recovery and a decent society is starting to become apparent, the Tories are experiencing attrition at the polls.

The forest sell-off and other, smaller but significant U-turns – such as over the Booktrust programme – show Cameron and Osborne are vulnerable to opposition and desperate to cling to as much of their electoral base as possible.

It is obvious why.

One, because the government's agenda is so brutal that it knows it cannot fight on all fronts at once, and needs to remove unnecessary noise and rows. Its problem is that there are so many cuts and reckless decisions that when one hole in the dam is plugged, another bursts open.

Two, because what the government fears most is that many more of those on middle incomes and even some on higher incomes will conclude that the government is wrong, out of touch and cutting too far and too fast.

The government fears that significant parts of its own potential electoral base may be turned against it. The forest sell-off was so damaging because it united opinion right the way through to parts of the country that should usually be Conservative-supporting. Ed Miliband's decision to make the forests campaign a priority was right and shows how it is possible to define the centre ground on Labour's terms.

Three, because, despite fighting a general election campaign against a party seeking an unprecedented fourth term after the worst economic crisis since the Second World War and with a prime minister on the ropes, David Cameron did not win the election. His government is fragile and lacks a mandate for its actions.

Cameron's speech demonising multiculturalism and the Muslim communities, on the day of the EDL march in Luton, was a distraction from the cuts that are hurting the majority. Similarly, the renewed attack on pay levels in the public sector is a distraction from how the bankers are sitting pretty and how the rich are being protected at everyone else's expense.

Here in London, Cameron's midterm electoral test is already hoving into view, with mayoral and Assembly elections a little over a year away. New figures published today show that just as Cameron and Osborne are squeezing the majority, so London's mayor has been focusing on protecting bankers and financiers. Over the course of one 12-month period, Boris Johnson held more meetings with bankers and the financial services industry than with the Metropolitan Police – and considerably more than he spent in publicly accountable meetings and press conferences.

His meetings with the bankers even outnumbered meetings with government ministers.

My message to tomorrow's cross-party Progressive London gathering is this. Yes, the economic situation is bad, and is damaging the lives of millions. Yes, the government's actions are harming public services and our quality of life. But our job is to stand up for the vast majority, ensure we are united, and work to prevent the Conservatives deflecting the agenda on their terms. And we should be clear that the government's own weaknesses mean there is everything to be gained from campaigning and organising on that basis to push them back.

Ken Livingstone is a former mayor of London. He will be speaking at "There is an Alternative – Protecting London, Opposing Tory Cuts" tomorrow at Congress House. For more information and to register in advance, click here.

Ken Livingstone is the former Mayor of London.
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.