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.

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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.