Cameron defends "intense" conversation with Rebekah Brooks

Prime Minister says: "My wife’s cousin had a party and I went, it’s not a big deal."

More than a few eyebrows were raised after it was reported that David Cameron held an "intense" conversation with Rebekah Brooks at a party in Chipping Norton shortly before Christmas. But challenged on the subject on Radio 5 Live this morning, Cameron made light of the meeting: "My wife’s cousin had a party and I went, it’s not a big deal. What really matters is the country and the decisions that are taken."

He added: "I am very focused on the job I do, it is a hugely fulfilling job and an enormous opportunity and a great honour to have this job.

"But it is a difficult time for Britain and I try and do this job in a way that I am levelling with people about the difficulties we face and not pretending it is easy when it isn’t.

"We do face difficult years, people have seen that when their wage packets haven't been going up, the challenges in terms of cost of living.

"I think there are important problems and challenges for this country to get on and get over, I think this government is helping them to do that."

After news of the encounter emerged, Ed Miliband declared at Prime Minister's Questions: "We know who this Prime Minister stands up for, because where was he last weekend? Back to his old ways, partying with Rebekah Brooks, no doubt both looking forward to the Boxing Day hunt".

Brooks was recently revealed to have secured an £11m pay-off when she resigned as chief executive of News International, including the use of office space in Marylebone and the services of company employees for two years. She is due to stand trial on 9 September over charges of phone-hacking and perverting the course of justice.

David Cameron with former Sun editor and News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.