Road trip 2013: Cameron slams UKIP while Osborne pushes for northern benefit cuts

Mid-term season is upon us.

David Cameron has been on the warpath today, preparing for his long-awaiting mid-term speech with Nick Clegg tomorrow. The pair will announce the Coalition's mid-term review, show off about their achievements so far, and set out some future policies (likely to be the last ones the coalition campaigns jointly on, as we move ever closer to election season).

First up is his interview with the Sunday Telegraph's Matthew Ancona. The big quote from that is that Cameron seems not to be downgrading his political ambitions in line with his poll ratings, as he tells the paper:

So, to be absolutely clear. When he tells voters at the 2015 election that, if he wins, he wants to serve a full term as prime minister, he will mean it literally (not, as Tony Blair did in 2005, to connote “a couple more years”)? “Yes. Look, I want to fight the next election, win the next election and serve – that is what I want to do. I often say to Conservatives, stop complaining about the things we haven’t done, look at the things we have done and are doing. This is an enormous reform agenda and that’s enough to keep us all busy, so that’s how it stands.”

This is said with resolve. And his aides agree afterwards that the PM’s remarks signal a fresh clarity: a determination not only that his strategy should be successful, but that he is the person to implement it. Remember: thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, this translates into Cameron remaining in No 10 (the electorate permitting) until at least May 2020. That would mean matching Blair’s period in No 10 (10 years), approaching Thatcher’s tenure as PM (11 years) and matching the span of her party leadership (15 years). Cameron’s declaration also sheds sharp new light on the ambitions of those presently touted for the succession: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond, George Osborne, Grant Shapps. Clearly, if the Tories win in 2015, Cameron has no intention whatsoever of waiting a couple of years and then retiring to his Lego and board games.

Cameron also took a Mail-pleasing stance on deportation, arguing with respect to Abu Qatada that:

I’m keen to move to a policy where we deport first, and suspects can appeal later.

Since the reason why Qatada wasn't deported was that British courts thought that there was an unacceptably high risk he would face torture in Jordan, it appears Cameron is basically cool with that. It's also unclear how he plans to overcome the massive hurdle of access of justice that comes from being tortured in an overseas prison while trying to appeal to the British courts. But moving on.

This morning, the PM appeared on the Andrew Marr show, where he annoyed much of the Tory right by doubling down on his assertion that UKIP contains "odd people". In this he is entirely factually accurate, but also sending a pretty strong signal to his own party not to hope for a merger any time soon. UKIP are, in Cameron's eyes, a party firmly on the fringe of UK politics.

Cameron also began firmly laying ground for Britain losing its triple-A credit rating, arguing that the interest rate at which Britain borrows is what we should be looking at instead. That interest rate is higher than fully 10 of the twenty countries whose rates are quoted by the FT, but it remains very low. That's got little to do with Cameron's leadership and everything to do with the reverse sovereign debt crisis the world has experienced for the last few years, so he ought to be safe for some time if that does become the new benchmark for success.

And throughout today, suggestions as to what might be in tomorrows speech have been leaking out. The Sun suggests more roadbuilding, The Sunday Times picks up on the idea of a single-tier pension, and the Telegraph reports that Osborne has requested lowering benefits in the North.

Tomorrow might be an interesting day if that goes ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred