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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.