Tory demand for an Osborne apology is growing

Tory MP Andrea Leadsom says the Chancellor "should apologise" for his attack on Balls.

The increasingly impressive Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom won't have done her career prospects any good with her call for George Osborne to "apologise" to Ed Balls but she has won the respect of Labour MPs as well as a sizeable number of Tories.

Asked by Radio 4's The World Tonight whether Osborne should apologise to Balls after Bank of England deputy governor Paul Tucker said no ministers asked him to "lean on" Barclays over Libor rates, Leadsom said:

Yes I do. I mean I think obviously he made a mistake and I think he should apologise.

She added:

I think it was a very valid discussion at the time about who knew what and that's now been completely squashed by Paul Tucker and that is a valid conversation to have had, and now at a personal level he probably would want to apologise.

But Osborne and his aides are refusing to back down. A friend of the Chancellor tells the Telegraph's James Kirkup that Osborne's suggestion was never that Labour ministers had lent on the Bank of England, rather that they had influenced the banks directly. That may or may not be the case, but one notes that Osborne has yet to supply any evidence to support his account. Nor has he even laid out the alleged "questions" Balls needs to answer.  As one Tory MP observed last week, "Before we went into the chamber on Thursday, George's people were saying 'Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. George is going to get Ed Balls'. They were indicating that there was a silver bullet that was going to kill him. It was never fired.

Challenged on the Today programme to defend Osborne, William Hague insisted that "there remain questions to answer" and that there was "no reason" for him to apologise. But as the Foreign Secretary's voice quivered one could tell his heart wasn't in it. Osborne's dramatic assertion that Labour ministers were "clearly involved" in the rate-rigging scandal has become the banal claim that they have "questions" to answer at the forthcoming parliamentary inquiry. Whether or not the Chancellor apologises, he has blinked first in this duel.

Chancellor George Osborne is facing calls to apologise to Ed Balls. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.