Osborne is losing political control of the economic debate

The once mighty 'Plan A' is reduced to a pile of cold pasties.

In today’s Telegraph, Liam Fox has written a brisk précis of the analysis often heard on the right wing of the Tory party about why the economy isn’t growing. The problem, in the former Defence Secretary’s view, is a lack of rigour in pursuing supply side reforms.
 
Chiefly, that means aggressive labour market deregulation. The theory is that rules protecting employees’ rights are deterring companies from taking on staff. Relaxing those rules - making it easier to sack people - is thus supposed to lubricate private sector job creation. This was the essential thrust of a report commissioned last year by Downing Street from Adrian Beecroft, a venture capitalist (and Tory party donor).
 
The Beecroft report got bogged down in coalition warfare as Lib Dems briefed heavily against it – suggesting it was a shoddy piece of work with recommendations that were mostly peripheral to the task of rebooting the economy. Fox takes a swipe at Nick Clegg’s party for “intuitive left-wing opposition to supply side reform”.
 
It is worth recalling at this point what Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey said in a New Stateman interview on this subject recently.  (He was the employment minister at the time of the most ferocious rows over Beecroft):

I never bought the argument that our labour market was the most regulated there is. All the evidence shows we have one of the least regulated labour markets in the world.

One reason this issue ignites internal coalition tension is that it becomes a proxy for pro- and anti-European feeling. The right wing of the Conservative party sees the EU as an engine of pernicious bureaucracy and regulation. Eurosceptics put setting employment rules at the top of their list of powers to be “repatriated”. The Lib Dems are desperately trying to steer the government into a more consensual approach in Brussels and find all talk of repatriation unhelpful.
 
But there is a different political problem for David Cameron and George Osborne contained in Fox’s intervention. The news of a double dip recession has emboldened both the left and right in their conviction that the coalition’s current course is failing. Naturally, they have entirely different diagnoses and as a sense of urgency - bordering on panic – takes hold, that divergence will become more extreme. The great danger for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor (and, by association, for Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander) is that they will lose control of the economic debate entirely.
 
As the Tory backbenches get frothy about bolder supply side measures and deeper cuts, Labour bangs its Keynesian drum for a change of course in the opposite direction. That leaves Downing Street holding a bunch of discredited budget measures that no one thinks will make the blindest bit of difference to growth. Plan A is reduced to a pile of cold pasties.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.