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20 July 2015

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. 

By Stephen Bush

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.

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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