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.

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Theresa May can play big fish with devolved nations - in the EU she's already a nobody

The PM may have more time for domestic meetings in future. 

Theresa May is sitting down with representatives from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on Monday to hear their concerns about Brexit. 

For the devolved nations, it is the first chance since the seismic vote in June to sit down at a table and talk to the Prime Minister together. 

May has reportedly offered them a "direct line" to Brexit secretary David Davis. It must be a nice change for her to be the big fish in the small pond, rather than the small fish in the big pond that everyone's already sick of. 

Because, when it comes to the EU, the roles of Westminster and other nations is reversed. 

Brexit was small potatoes on the menu of Theresa May’s first European Council summit. It may hurt British pride but the other 27 heads of state and government had far more pressing issues on their plate to worry about.

So, it was an awkward debut Council evening meal of lamb and figs for Prime Minister Theresa May and dinner was served with a large reality check.

As May was later asked at her press conference, why would anyone listen to someone who already has one foot out the door?

Britain is in limbo until it triggers article 50, the legal process taking it out of the EU. Until that happens, it will be largely and politiely ignored.

May’s moment to shine didn’t come until 1am. She spoke on Brexit for “five minutes maximum” and said “nothing revolutionary”, EU sources briefed later.

May basically did that break-up talk. The one where someone says they are leaving but “we can still be friends”. The one where you get a divorce but refuse to leave the house. 

It was greeted in the way such moments often are – with stony silence. Brexit won’t be seriously discussed until article 50 is triggered, and then the negotiations will be overseen by the European Commission, not the member states.

As became rapidly clear after the vote to leave and in sharp contrast to the UK government, the EU-27 was coordinated and prepared in its response to Brexit. That unity, as yet, shows no sign of cracking.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel later damned May with faint praise. She hadn’t said anything new but it was nice to hear it in person, she told reporters.

Merkel, as she often does, had a successful summit. She needed Council conclusions on migration that would reassure her skittish voters that the doors to Germany are no longer thrown wide open to migrants. Germany is one of the member states to have temporarily reintroduced border checks in the passport-free Schengen zone

The conclusions said that part of returning to Schengen as normal was “adjusting the temporary border controls to reflect the current needs”.

This code allows Merkel and her Danish allies to claim victory back home, while allowing Slovakia, which holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, enough of an excuse to insist it has not overseen the effective end of Schengen.

But Merkel’s migration worries did not provide hope for the British push for immigration controls with access to the single market. The Chancellor, and EU chiefs, have consistently said single market access is conditional on the free movement of people. So far this is a red line.

Everyone had discussed the EU’s latest responses to the migration crisis at a summit in Bratislava. Everyone apart from May. She was not invited to the post-Brexit meeting of the EU-27.

She tried to set down a marker, telling her counterparts that the UK wouldn’t just rubberstamp everything the EU-27 cooked up.

This was greeted with a polite, friendly silence. The EU-27 will continue to meet without Britain.

Francois Hollande told reporters that if May wanted a hard Brexit, she should expect hard negotiations.

Just the day before Alain Juppe, his likely rival in next year’s presidential election, had called for the UK border to be moved from Calais to Kent.

Hollande had to respond in kind and the Brussels summit gave him the handy platform to do so. But once inside the inner sanctum of the Justus Lipsius building, it was Syria he cared about. He’s enjoyed far more foreign than domestic policy success.

May had called for a “unified European response” to the Russian bombing of Aleppo. It was a break in style from David Cameron, who is not fondly remembered in Brussels for his habit of boasting to the news cameras he was ready to fight all night for Britain and striding purposefully into the European Council. 

Once safely behind closed doors, he would be far more conciliatory, before later claiming another triumph over the Eurocrats at a pumped-up press conference.

May could point to Council conclusions saying that all measures, including sanctions, were on the table if the Russian outrages continue. But her victory over countries such as Italy and Greece was only achieved thanks to support from France and Germany. 

The national success was also somewhat undermined by the news Russian warships were in the Channel, and that the Brexit talks might be in French.

But even warships couldn’t stop the British being upstaged by the Belgian French-speaking region of Wallonia. Its parliament had wielded an effective veto on Ceta, the EU-Canada trade deal.

Everyone had skin in this game. All the leaders, including May, had backed CETA, arguing the removal of almost all custom duties would boost trade the economy. Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel was forced to tell exasperated leaders he could not force one of Belgium’s seven parliaments to back CETA, or stop it wrecking seven years of painstaking work.

As the news broke that Canada’s trade minister Chrystia Freeland had burst into tears as she declared the deal dead, everyone – not the first time during the summit – completely forgot about Britain and its referendum.

Even as the British PM may be enjoying a power trip in her own domestic union of nations, on the international stage, she is increasingly becoming irrelevant. 

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.