Hugo Chávez: not dead

Reports of the Venezuelan President's death have been exaggerated.

Hugo Chávez, a Mark Twain fan, might feel like quoting Twain's famous quip that "rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated" this morning. Reports of Chávez's demise began on Twitter last night after a group calling itself WikiLeaks Argentina (not associated with Julian Assange's outfit) tweeted: "Argentinean Embassy Cable: Confirmed - ALERT!! Hugo Chavez died of heart attack today in Cuba. 06/25/11 08:43AM 0438VZ/11". But the claim was not verified by any news organisation and appeared to be a hoax.

Chávez has been governing Venezuela from a hospital bed in Cuba since 10 June when he had emergency surgery on a pelvic abscess. He was rushed to hospital after suffering abdominal pain while in a meeting with Fidel Castro. The Venezuelan government has insisted that he is "recovering well" and has denied rumours that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Chávez telephoned the state-run television channel, Telesur, on June 12 and said medical tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness. His Twitter account, which had laid dormant for 19 days, was updated on Friday. Chávez tweeted: "I'm here with you during the hard battles every day! Until victory always! We are winning! And we shall win!"

But his absence has highlighted what has been clear for some time: there is no obvious successor to the man who has led Venezuela for 12 years. The left, ostensibly committed to collective agency, has allowed itself to become dependent on another caudillo.

Perhaps surprisingly, the fate of the self-styled "21st centry socialist" has attracted little comment, even in the liberal press (the Guardian, for instance, did not report on Chávez's hospitalisation). But Chávez's unsavoury friendships with dictators and autocrats, including Robert Mugabe, Colonel Gaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Alexander Lukashenko, mean that he is no longer viewed so favourably by the British left. For Venezuela, the question remains whether Chávezism is possible without Chávez.

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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