Miliband’s U-turn on Clarke

The Labour leader has distanced himself from his call for the Justice Secretary to be sacked.

Ed Miliband has distanced himself from his call for Kenneth Clarke to be sacked over his comments on rape. Writing in the Independent, the leader of the opposition argues:

The slide from grace of Ken Clarke has caused some glum faces amongst those who believe in a better penal. People who share my belief in prison reform as part of a policy to cut crime are worried as they see him being edged towards the cabinet room exit door.

They are wrong.

The necessary reforms to our justice system will never be carried out successfully by a government, and by those like Ken Clarke and David Cameron, who are so woefully out of touch with the real world.

The tone of the piece is curious. It gives the impression that Miliband no longer thinks Clarke should be sacked. The column is a defence of Miliband's comments, rather than a reiteration of them. Miliband had 600 words to call for Clarke's sacking and failed to do so.

This is a U-turn, particularly when compared to what Miliband said in the Commons on Wednesday. Here's Hansard:

When the Prime Minister leaves the Chamber, he should go and look at the comments of the Justice Secretary – and let me just say to him very clearly: the Justice Secretary should not be in his post at the end of today. That is the first thing the Prime Minister should do. The second thing he should do is to drop this policy, because this policy, which they are defending, is the idea that if you plead guilty to rape you get your sentence halved. [Emphasis added]

Miliband was emphatic in the Commons. Yet two days later – and with Clarke looking safe in his position – the Labour leader has changed his tune. As I pointed out yesterday, Miliband cannot call for the heads of ministers willy-nilly without beginning to look like the boy who cried "wolf". No wonder he's trying to distance himself from the comment.

Calling for Clarke to go was bad politics because it was a call that was likely to go unheeded, particularly when Labour and the Conservatives have broadly similar policies with regard to sentencing in general. But rather than attempt to build a case for progressive and effective penal policy in the UK, Miliband took the opportunity to attack from the right – something he said he would not do.

Speaking at the Labour party conference in October, Miliband declared: "When Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high reoffending rates, I'm not going to say he's soft on crime." It looks like things have changed.

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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.