Cut, cut, cut: Mehdi Hasan reports on Alistair Darling v Greg Barker

The inconvenient truth is that Labour also wanted to cut more than Margaret Thatcher.

Shadow cabinet ministers and Labour-supporting bloggers alike have become excited by this quote [below] from the Tory minister Greg Barker, speaking in front of an American audience:

We are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of.

He's right. But the Labour response is, ahem, odd. Angela Eagle, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, says:

Greg Barker has let the cat out the bag about the ideological agenda behind this Tory-led government's deep cuts to public services.

Hmm. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. The inconvenient truth is that Labour, in the so-called Darling plan for deficit reduction, had also planned to go beyond Thatcher, too -- and were equally keen to "let the cat out of the bag".

Here's the relevant quote from the then chancellor, Alistair Darling, in an interview with the BBC's Nick Robinson in March 2010:

Robinson: "The Treasury's own figures suggest deeper, tougher than Thatcher's -- do you accept that?"

Darling: "They will be deeper and tougher -- where we make the precise comparison, I think, is secondary to an acknowledgement that these reductions will be tough."

That's why the Darling plan was such a bad plan. Halving the deficit over four years is a political decision on a political timetable; it has nothing to do with economics. I can't help but agree with Polly Toynbee, who wrote in her Guardian column on Saturday:

Labour should seize this moment. Increasingly trapped inside Alistair Darling's straitjacket, Labour should embark on a new economic direction. The FT quite fairly analysed the figures: the difference between Labour and coalition deficit reduction plans is just £24bn by 2014. Ed Balls's claim that cutting half as much is "a massive difference" is only true if he offers a route map to explain what tax rises and what growth formulae deliver the same deficit reduction as would Tory cuts. Both Eds sound uncomfortable because sticking to the Darling plan means more painful cuts than they can admit. The argument that they are not in power so don't need a complete budget may be tactically correct, but it doesn't work as a public statement. Labour can only take a commanding lead over the next austerity months by offering a more convincing economic alternative.

Over to you, Mr Balls . . .

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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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