The crown on Richard III's coffin. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Labour in a trap, Cameron’s decade debacle, democracy at the Guardian and Leicester’s losers

Plus Richard III interred - and that end-of-term feeling as Parliament closes down.

My nightmare of a decisive Tory election victory refuses to go away. George Osborne’s Budget may have disappointed Tories who hoped for a cut in headline tax rates, and encouraged Labour supporters who think he blundered by failing to mention the NHS. Yet YouGov’s post-Budget polls show his personal ratings rising. Asked who would make the better chancellor, twice as many choose Osborne as choose Ed Balls.

True, the Tories’ poll position hasn’t improved so far, and chancellors’ ratings usually rise immediately after a Budget. But, I fear, the Tories will do themselves no harm whatever by promising more austerity until 2019. Labour’s “responsibility” for the financial crisis and subsequent recession has been firmly (and falsely) implanted in voters’ minds. So has the equally false allegation that Labour’s spending brought Britain close to Greece-style ruin. The more the Tories talk about austerity, therefore, the more voters are reminded of Labour’s supposed recklessness and incompetence. And the longer austerity goes on – or is said to begoing on, given that, in fact, Osborne largely abandoned it in 2012 – the worse Labour’s legacy looks. “They left such a mess that it’s taking us nearly ten years to clear it up,” the Tories will say. Eds Miliband and Balls are caught in a trap that will be hard to escape.

 

End-of-term feeling

No prime minister since Lord Liverpool has served three full terms of office consecutively. The fates of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair tell us that, after a decade, everyone becomes sick of the sight of whoever’s in Downing Street, and the PMs themselves go at least slightly mad. Because the law says a term now has to be five years rather than the more usual four, it was a statement of the obvious for David Cameron to say he wouldn’t serve a third term. But it was still a foolish error – we haven’t given you a second term yet, sunshine, and didn’t really intend you to have a first – which shows again that Cameron rarely thinks through the consequences of what he says and does. Neville Chamberlain was once described as a good lord mayor of Birmingham in a bad year. It may be said of Cameron that he was a good PR of Carlton TV in a bad year.

 

The infantry has spoken

Newspapers’ internal affairs, someone once said to me, are more political than politics (she worked for David Owen when he and David Steel led the SDP-Liberal Alliance, and so she spoke with authority). Several commentators saw lots of politics in Katharine Viner’s success in the staff ballot for the next Guardian editor and her subsequent appointment. The result, they suggested, represented a rejection of the legacy of Alan Rusbridger, the outgoing editor, and particularly of his single-minded focus on Edward Snowden’s revelations about the intelligence agencies. But without denying that such considerations had some influence, I prefer a simpler explanation: Viner is a more charming, more inclusive and less threatening figure than Janine Gibson, who started as the bookies’ and Rusbridger’s favourite.

Viner, a former editor of the Saturday paper and latterly head of the Guardian’s US operation, campaigned vigorously, buttonholing staff in corridors and telling them to vote from the heart. She said staff should get more feedback and career development, and the Guardian should have more “warmth and fun”. She thus won over the poor bloody infantry – reporters, specialist correspondents, sub-editors, all of whom feel desperately insecure and somewhat marginalised as the Guardian transforms itself into an international digital brand – and took the ballot by a thumping margin, with the slightly scary Gibson, boss of the company’s digital journalism, languishing in third place.

 

Insider dealings

The result wasn’t binding on the Scott Trust, which appoints the editor; had Viner won narrowly, it might have gone ahead with its plan to give the job to Gibson. But the rulers of a newspaper that shouts its commitments to democracy and equal opportunities could hardly ignore such a decisive result. Nor, with three plausible female candidates, could it do more than pay Ian Katz, a former deputy editor who moved to edit BBC2’s Newsnight, the compliment of making him runner-up. As for the various Americans it encouraged to apply – they included a former editor of the International Herald Tribune – they all disappeared without trace.

That is the trouble with allowing staff a significant voice. They will always favour an inside candidate – better the devil you know, etc – and outsiders usually want to keep their interest confidential lest they upset their current employers. (Katz, though his application was an open secret, was not on the journalists’ ballot paper.) Proprietors frequently appoint insiders anyway but sometimes newspapers need an editor from outside their culture. Would anybody have voted for Andrew Neil, an obscure Economist hack when Rupert Murdoch made him Sunday Times editor? Or for Max Hastings, best known as a rather self-aggrandising foreign correspondent when Conrad Black installed him at the Telegraph?

 

Pride of Leicester

The English are so stubbornly royalist that they will scatter roses, line the streets and wait hours to file past a coffin for a king who’s been dead more than 500 years. It seems appropriate that Leicester, poised to record the rare double of its football team coming bottom of the Premier League and its cricket team bottom of the County Championship, now turns out to celebrate Richard III, whose life ended in defeat not only for him but for the entire Plantagenet dynasty. Still, my birthplace always makes the best of what J B Priestley, in his curmudgeonly way, called “a very rum mixed list of historical associations”. As readers and viewers of Wolf Hall will know, Cardinal Wolsey died there – another loser, come to think of it – and he was commemorated by a local manufacturer stamping his name on men’s socks and underpants. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.