A Budget with looming shadows

There were no rabbits in his hat. Hanging over Darling's speech was the spectre of global economic u

First it was going to be the green Budget. Then it was the anti-booze Budget, next the steady-as-she-goes Budget and, just at the last moment, the child poverty Budget. Budgets these days have to be all things to all people, or at least most things to as many people as possible. With a growing political consensus over the priorities of government, this would have been true even if it had been George Osborne standing up in parliament on 12 March. Budgets must be business-friendly and yet tackle inequality; they must give generously to public services while cutting the tax burden; and they must address the immediate issues of the day - this year it is the turn of first-time housebuyers, supermarket plastic bags and polluting cars.

In the end, Alistair Darling's first Budget has been the "hard truths" Budget. Under the pressure of an ever-slowing economy, the Chancellor was forced to outline the bleakest financial situation since Labour came to power in 1997, although not quite as grim as some predicted. He should be congratulated for avoiding the temptation to pull last-minute rabbits out of hats. "Not really his style," according to one aide.

As expected, he downgraded his forecast for growth for 2008, outlined in his Pre-Budget Report as being between 2 and 3 per cent, to between 1.75 and 2.25 per cent. Scare stories from the weekend before the Budget suggested he would need to raise £240 per household in taxes to plug a £5bn black hole in the public finances. The sums may appear complex and confusing, but much of the Chancellor's work is simple arithmetic - as revenues to the Exchequer drop, he either has to tax more or borrow more to honour the government's spending plans. In the end he will do a bit of both, but either way, Darling is in a dark place.

As he prepared the Budget in the full knowledge that the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve were all pouring billions of dollars of funds into the money markets to avoid a global recession, he must have felt like the unluckiest man alive. Alone at the Despatch Box with just a glass of tap water for company, Darling was on the spot and it was his job and his alone to inform Britain of the naked truth about the state of the economy. His contention that the present situation is not as serious as during the worst Tory years is basically sound. Britain is still a high-employment, low-inflation economy. Growth may be slowing down but it had, indeed, been sustained for 62 quarters, a better record than for any of our major competitors.

It is also true that Darling has been dealt a duff hand, and not just by the American "sub-prime" mortgage crisis (for which no one can hold him responsible) but also by decisions of his predecessor, who built an edifice of public spending commitments on the assumption of continued growth. But, to an extent, politicians create their own luck and much of Darling's speech was taken up with atoning for the political miscalculations of his Pre-Budget Report in October. He held his nerve on the £30,000 levy on "non-domiciles", who avoid paying tax in Britain by moving their financial affairs elsewhere, but was forced into concessions. It is thought a deal has also been reached with the US Treasury on payments from American citizens. The Chancellor's attempt to simplify capital gains tax by introducing a flat rate of 18p had to be revised after he came under pressure from the business community. In less difficult times, such changes would have been seen as tweaks. In the present atmosphere, however, everything Darling does is scrutinised by the City for signs of indecisiveness.

As the analysis of the Budget plays out, attention will inevitably turn to the reaction in the Square Mile, where the knives have been out for Darling almost from the moment he arrived at 11 Downing Street. But some of the wisest economic heads in the country are turning to another area of grave concern: the state of our public finances. It is of course true that everyone is affected by the mood of Britain's financial markets, but a far more immediate impact will be felt as the money for schools and hospitals starts to dry up.

One problem for Darling is the growing national debt. The Chancellor's best Budget soundbite - that Labour has "turned welfare into work and borrowing into wealth creation" - is at the very least arguable. The Chancellor made much of Labour's record on borrowing. But David Cameron was right to raise the issue of Northern Rock. The so-called "sustainable investment rule", which states that net public borrowing should remain at or below 40 per cent, has already been shaken by the nationalisation of the high street bank, whose liabilities in reality push the figure closer to 45 per cent. If estimates of the economic slowdown are correct, the borrowing necessary to plug the hole in the public finances will push this figure even higher. In fact, even Darling's estimates push it within a percentage point of the 40 per cent danger point.

The investors' verdict

Then there is the looming shadow of the government's Private Finance Initiative schemes, which were designed specifically to keep borrowing off the Treasury's balance sheet. These projects, which use private funding for large public projects such as schools and hospitals, will soon be included as part of the national debt to bring Britain in line with International Financial Reporting Standards. At the same time, liabilities from public sector pension schemes, which have been badly hit by the international credit crunch, will also contribute to the growing debt. Some estimates suggest that the combined liabilities of pension and PFI schemes would bring the proportion of debt to 100 per cent of GDP.

In one sense, the sustainable investment rule is just an arbitrary measure, set by the government to measure its own economic competence. What really matters is the attitude of global financial institutions to such profligacy, and investors' preparedness to put their money into new projects. In the new period of economic uncertainty, the British public would certainly begin to notice if plans for a shiny new hospital or school were put on ice. Already concerns have been raised about the slow progress of the government's PFI-funded Building Schools for the Future programme.

The real issue is that we don't know the full consequences of the slowdown for the public purse. New Labour has never been here before. A recent article by Paul Gosling in Public Finance magazine put it succinctly: "Underlying everything is a fog of uncertainty. The use of 'financial engineering' and the complex hedging of financial risk means there is very real confusion about exactly who has lost what from the sub-prime crisis - and that is affecting almost everything on the world's financial markets."

Darling's first Budget was just the sort of solid, unflashy affair demanded in the circumstances. Many of the details will be welcomed by people Labour should care about: children, the poor and the old. But it will all mean nothing if he fails to address that fog of uncertainty afflicting the public finances.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge