Harriet Harman addresses the press. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Obama’s second wind, Tories against the law, and why Liz Kendall is Labour’s Ken Clarke

Liz Kendall may well be Labour's Ken Clarke, and Jeremy Corbyn could yet be the party's IDS. 

Having orchestrated two victories over Labour for David Cameron, George Osborne wants one of his own in 2020. That is surely the thinking behind the ostentatiously cruel aspects of the Budget: a further lowering of the benefit cap, cuts to child tax credits and yet more reductions to the employment and support allowance (incapacity benefit, in old
money). The Chancellor wants to be able to go into another election with the same dull but lethal attack on Labour – “more taxes, more borrowing, more debt” – that the Conservatives used against Ed Miliband.

Harriet Harman, one of the vanishingly small number of Labour politicians who seem to grasp how much trouble the party is in, is doing her best not to fall into Osborne’s trap, announcing only partial opposition to the government’s changes to welfare. Yet there is a section of the parliamentary party which, if the Chancellor dug a large hole in the ground, lined the bottom with spikes and left a neon sign of the word “trap” beside it, would consider it a matter of principle to walk into it.

Harman paid a heavy price for her stance at a meeting of Labour MPs on 13 July. Just five supported her and there was, in the words of one present, a “lot of bloodletting”. A sizeable rebellion against the party line – to abstain in the vote on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill – looks likely and her approach has been trashed by three of the four leadership candidates. There will be more bloodletting if, as looks likely, Harman’s successor as leader junks the sensible approach of not opposing for the sake of opposing which she and the shadow chancellor, Chris Leslie, have pursued since Labour’s defeat.

 

Heresies of the left

I fear that Liz Kendall is Labour’s Ken Clarke. On three occasions, the Conservatives refused to elect Clarke, by far the most formidable politician on the Tory side, largely because of his Europhilia. Kendall’s heresies over defence spending and free schools seem to be having a similar effect on her campaign, which is looking increasingly worse for wear, despite polls consistently showing her to be the candidate capable of doing the most damage to the Tory party.

There is growing concern in Labour circles that Jeremy Corbyn could turn out to be the party’s Iain Duncan Smith. Given a choice between the tough love of Clarke and the hardline policies of Duncan Smith, Conservative activists opted for the latter. If the hapless IDS had led the Tories into the 2005 election, Labour would have won with a third successive landslide. The Conservative Party has a ruthlessness about doomed leaders that Labour lacks. If Corbyn – currently a strong second in terms of constituency nominations – can take the crown, it seems unlikely that Labour MPs would wield the knife before the next election.

 

Getting with the programme

Barack Obama continues to surprise his critics. More than eight months after a wave of Republican victories in Congress that was expected to turn his final years in office into mere time-serving, the president is still racking up the achievements. First, the right to equal marriage was enshrined by the US Supreme Court, by a margin of one vote. Two of the justices who voted to ensure equal marriage were Obama’s appointees. Now, an accord has been reached between the “P5+1” – the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany – and Iran to reduce the scope of the latter’s nuclear weapons programme. Obama-era secretaries of state – first Hillary Clinton, then John Kerry – made much of the running.

There is plenty to criticise in Obama’s ­record but he has gone some way to restoring America’s reputation overseas and made the country a little kinder than it was five years ago. He is a transformational president, not just because of the colour of his skin but because of the content of his policy programme.

 

Justice under fire

I went to the Bush Theatre in west London to see The Invisible, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play about the cuts to legal aid. (There were so many horrors in the Budget that further reductions in Ministry of Justice spending went almost unnoticed.) For less than the cost of a rounding error in the NHS,
the Conservatives seem happy to demolish a central pillar of the welfare state.

The consequences will be grim – and I wonder if the Conservatives might be overreaching on this occasion. Reductions in benefits and tax credits, for all their human cost, don’t necessarily hit the partners and friends of people with columns in the Times. Criminal barristers, however, are well represented around the dinner tables of the influential and, indeed, have the ear of many Tory backbenchers.

 

Bush by name

Shepherd’s Bush, where the Bush Theatre is located, is where I got my surname from. My great-grandfather, a Jewish shopkeeper, had a jewellery store nearby with the imaginative name of Bush Stores. He worried that the family name of Shimanski would endanger the clan if the worst happened and Hitler were to cross the Channel. So we abandoned our dangerously Jewish moniker and adopted an innocuous Gentile one instead.

The industrial-scale murder of that time came, in part, out of a decade-long reduction in living standards and public services in Germany after the Great Depression, coupled with a sense that the country had been humbled. In Greece today, just as Syriza has risen from the fringes of the populist left to the forefront of politics, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn has also enjoyed a surge in support in the polls – both powered by the seemingly unending programme of austerity driven by the eurozone. I worry that the long-term consequence of further cutbacks to public spending, besides the humiliation of Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras, will be a government of the radical right.

Stephen Bush edits the Staggers, the New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

Peter Wilby is away

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.