Osborne under assault from all sides

Alastair Campbell slams Boy George

It must count as some achievement to simultaneously attract the ire of Alastair Campbell and Simon Heffer. That's the unusual position in which George Osborne finds himself this morning, with Campbell writing a deliciously catty letter to the Financial Times and Heffer calling on David Cameron to sack his shadow chancellor.

The departure point for Campbell's letter is the growing awareness that Osborne is more concerned with grabbing headlines than he is with credible economic policy. His pledge to ban retail banks from paying out large cash bonuses may have translated well in our soundbite culture, but it was soon exposed by economists who pointed out that it would weaken planned curbs on the investment banks responsible for the most extravagent bonuses.

Osborne's claim that capping bonuses would lead banks to lend more similarly fell apart under scrutiny. Banks would almost certainly use any spare cash to build up their balance sheets.

Campbell astutely notes that Osborne's dual role as shadow chancellor and election co-ordinator may be responsible for his economic shortcomings:

In appointing Mr Osborne to both positions, David Cameron perhaps reveals his own weakness in failing to differentiate between strategy and tactics. It might be sensible for the Conservative leader to relieve Mr Osborne of one of his two posts. I sense that the City would like it to be the shadow chancellorship. The Labour Party will be hoping that's the one he keeps.

Some may be surprised to see a Labour tribalist like Campbell pop up in the FT, but as I've noted before the paper is not the free-market bible some imagine it to be. Thanks to a strong Keynesian faction, the title has backed Labour at every election since 1992.

I notice that Iain Martin, formerly of the Daily Telegraph and now of the Wall Street Journal, has launched an "FT Watch" on his blog. That the most economically literate paper on Fleet Street has turned its guns on the Tories says much about the state of Conservative policy.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.