How seven years of cuts will transform the political landscape

The notion that a Labour government in 2015 would itself be a cutting government has yet to sink in.

When it comes to big political set pieces, like yesterday's Autumn Statement, the predictable somehow still manages to surprise. Everyone knew it would be bad; and we all knew it would raise big challenges for all three parties. Yet today, everyone is caught off-guard.

In part, it's because the unprecedented duration of the cuts -- until 2017 -- is now abundantly clear and longer than many had appreciated. Think back to 2004, when the economy was booming; a rising star of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, had risen to the lofty position of opposition spokesperson on local government; Nick Clegg had just stepped down from the European Parliament; and a young Treasury advisor by the name of Ed Miliband had just returned from a sabbatical at Harvard. Seven years really is a very long time in politics. That's how long we're going to be talking about cuts for, so we'd better get used to it. We also know that the pain on public sector pay will extend to 2015 (and probably longer). Household living standards won't start to tick up until at least 2014. The wages of the typical worker are unlikely to surpass their pre-recession levels until at least 2020. The roll call of long-term economic misery goes on and on.

Which is why all parties woke up today still trying to come to terms with what it all means for their central political purpose and pitch. For the Conservatives, who currently have a clearer account of how to traverse this new terrain than any other party, it is the final confirmation, if any were needed, that they are ditching their previous modernisation strategy. Turn the clock back just a few years and think about the core elements of Cameron's one-nation argument -- a strategy which was clear, politically potent, and created the space for the formation of the coalition. Demonstrate progressive credentials via a new Tory commitment to child poverty that was supposed to warm the heart of the likes of Polly Toynbee. Create a new base of political support within the public sector. Make headway in the north of England. Reach out to new and younger voters through a "vote blue, go green" message. Convert the Conservative party into a 21st century home for hard-pressed working women. Most of these claims are now in shreds; all are severely tarnished. In their place is a very big bet that they can win on economic leadership in tough times -- a bet that may still prove right -- but one that leaves the modernisation agenda as a relic of a bygone era.

For the Liberal Democrats, perhaps more than any other party, yesterday may turn out to be seismic. It will certainly be viewed by many of their members as the moment when a bunch of Treasury civil servants, together with Danny Alexander, blew a hole in their next manifesto. The central proposition of the coalition -- coming together in the national interest to tackle the deficit within the life of the current parliament -- is no more. Now the time-span of the shared central commitment to cuts has been cast forward into the latter part of the decade. And the Liberal Democrat leadership has pledged the coalition will undertake a spending review itemising cuts beyond the next election -- presumably cuts that will therefore have to figure in both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos (so much for the much heralded "differentiation" strategy). And all this without a trace of internal party discussion -- unless, that is, someone is going to tell us that Simon Hughes and Tim Farron happened to be sitting in on the Treasury's forecasting meetings. All of which poses a few questions: the balance between tax-rises and spending reductions? The political viability of seven years of austerity for an already weakened party, many of whose members self-identify as being on the centre left? But no need to debate these trifling issues, or so it seems.

And the implications are barely less far-reaching for Labour. Above all, the worse the economic news, the higher the stakes become -- and the louder the ticking of the clock as people wait for the party's polling numbers on economic competence to turn upwards. If that doesn't start to happen soon, more and more people will wonder quite what George Osborne would have to announce about the dire state of the economy before Labour starts to take a lead on these issues.

Last week in a speech Ed Miliband rightly struck a slightly different and more accommodating tone, seeking to persuade a largely unconvinced public that his party's economic argument was right for our times. He also went out of his way to stress that if elected he will embrace the challenge of governing under austerity, though in a different way to the coalition. That sentiment is now either going to be reversed (if the leadership decides it can't stomach the gritty reality of talking about cuts in the next parliament, which would raise huge questions about Labour's fiscal credibility) or, far more likely, it will have to become mainstreamed and echoed right across the party. And that means entering the day-to-day politics and vernacular of every shadow cabinet member. The notion that a Labour government in 2015, inheriting a greatly diminished public sector, will itself be a cutting government is yet to sink in. To put it mildly, it is quite a mind shift.

Make no mistake: even though yesterday sort of went as predicted, it also changed everything.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left