Season’s greetings

And I’d hoped Ray Stubbs had gone back to teaching geography . . .

Now that it's the Prem break, what do you think so far? I'm still trying to get my tongue round Extra Sensory Perception, which is what I call the new channel to which I have paid a fortune, just as I paid a fortune to Sultana, whose proper name I never got straight either - then they were gorn.

On day one of ESPN, their cameras swooped us down long corridors, swished us through impressive doorways and then - whoosh - into the post-match studio where, so they announced triumphantly, all the Big Football Interviews will take place this season. The red squirrels outside my window here in the Lake District have more room in their nut box than ESPN presenters. And one of them, dear God, has turned out to be Ray Stubbs, whom I hoped had gone back to geography teaching. His return is good news for Alan Shearer. By comparison, he might turn out to be charismatic.

Vermilion, that's another new name I'm struggling with - the Belgian defender Arsenal have signed. I'll call him that till the experts settle down and decide on its proper pronunciation. He looks good, though, another smart find for Arsène, while Fergie will come to regret buying Antonio Valencia.As for Michael Owen, Ferguson can pretend he never actually signed him by not playing him. Who? Wee Mickey? Never heard of him.

Weird things are happening to Big Sam and Steve Bruce - two stout, true English yeomen, straight out of central casting. In post-match interviews, their faces are taking on extra bulges and crevices, growing bigger and stranger as they talk. Are they auditioning for a BBC Dickens adaptation, or have the cameramen stuck on distorting lenses, just for a laugh? By the end of the season, sensitive viewers might avert their eyes to avoid nightmares.

Two big talking points already: the hooligans at West Ham and Eduardo diving. Both are hardy annuals, early-season diversions, which allow the newspaper pundits to unload all their self-righteous twaddle: back to the dark ages, what are the authorities doing, disgusting photographs, bloody foreigners coming over here, cheating bastards, honest British lads, why oh why?

The real footie stories, however, have proved rather unusual, notably Tottenham Hotspur on top of the League. While dancing in the fields, my mind did go back to the beginning of the 1974-75 season when Carlisle United were top after winning their first three games (against Chelsea, Spurs and Boro, so not dummies), then it all collapsed, and CUFC were never heard of again.

Spurs' position is interesting because this time last season they were at the bottom, losing every game. From experience, we know it don't mean nuffink. They'll end up mid-table. As ever.

Nice to see Burnley having a half-decent start, joining the other Bs at the top table. Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers were together in the first-ever football league in 1888, and have been all together in the top league on only, er, so many occasions. Look, I haven't got time to look up the records, the season has just started, so much important stuff to think about.

Stuff such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool all losing games early doors, which is excellent news for the rest of the Prem. Man United, now without Ronaldo and Tévez, don't look a match for the awesomes of Barça and Real Madrid. (Except, have you noticed, Ronaldo is so fat.)

So, let's do some blue-skies thinking. Yes, Man City, the hope for us all in fun, stories and laughs in the season ahead . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.