The key contradiction in the Tories’ deficit spin

Was there a Labour plan, or not?

Various half-truths, lies and myths about the deficit have been peddled by the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and their supporters in the press in recent months. Right-wing deficit hawks pretend that the deficit had already ballooned prior to the 2008 banking crash when, in fact, as Labour's new shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, pointed out in the House of Commons yesterday, this country entered the financial crisis with the second-lowest Budget deficit in the G7.

They also claim that the Blair and Brown governments spent excessively and unwisely in the run-up to the crash, omitting to mention that Messrs Cameron and Osborne backed Labour's spending plans right up until November 2008. (See Jonathan Freedland's excellent column in yesterday's Guardian for further details and observations.)

But the biggest contradiction (lie?) at the heart of the Con-Dem spin strategy concerns their (mis)representation of the Labour Party position on deficit reduction.

In a round of interviews this morning, George Osborne claimed:

People keep saying, "Where's your plan B?" I've got a plan A – this country didn't have any plan at all a few months ago.

Yesterday, however, in his Spending Review in the Commons, he concluded:

I am pleased to tell the House it has been possible – and the average saving in departmental budgets will be lower than the previous government implied in its March Budget. Instead of cuts of 20 per cent there will be cuts of 19 per cent over four years.

So, let me get this straight. The Tories have been saying for months that Labour left the country in a mess, without a deficit reduction plan, that Labour frontbenchers are "deficit deniers", blah, blah, but then, yesterday, Osborne suddenly claims that Labour had planned for 20 per cuts in departmental spending and his 19 per cent cuts were therefore lower than those. But then, this morning, he reverts to form and starts droning on about the alleged absence of a deficit reduction plan until, God bless them, the Con-Dem coalition came to office in May.

This is as absurd as it is dishonest. They cannot claim, on the one hand, that they are making these draconian, swingeing and severe cuts because Labour didn't have the balls or the brains to do so, but then, on the other, claim that Labour's cuts would have been worse than theirs.

UPDATE

You can watch me debating the Spending Review with the Tory blogger Iain Dale and the Chatham House economist Vanessa Rossi on al-Jazeera's Inside Edition here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.