Balls shows he's no "deficit denier" at the TUC

The shadow chancellor was heckled as he warned that Labour would cut too.

Those who denounce Ed Balls as Labour's "deficit-denier-in-chief" should have watched his speech to the TUC conference this morning. While the shadow chancellor made a typically persuasive case for short-term stimulus, he went on to use some of the toughest language we've heard from him on the need for spending cuts and other austerity measures to reduce the deficit in the long-term. To cries of "rubbish!" from trade union delegates (a rebuke that won't have troubled Balls in the slightest), he said:

We must be honest with the British people that under Labour, there would have been cuts, and that – on spending, pay and pensions – there will be disappointments and difficult decisions from which we will not flinch.

Balls went on to reaffirm the position he outlined in January - that Labour, based on current trends, will have to keep "all these cuts". He could not "make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts." Unlike Nick Clegg, he quipped, "we will not make promises we cannot keep".

When challenged in the Q&A session on Labour's failure to oppose George Osborne's public sector pay freeze (and the 1% cap from 2013), Balls replied that "you can't say pay before jobs, we've got to say jobs before pay"  ("shame on you!", one delegate shouted). Asked if the party would take the railways back into public ownership (a demand that prompted the loudest cheers of the session), Balls replied that the policy would cost billions and so the answer was 'no'.  "I’m not sure when we come into government in 2015 that expenditure on that scale is going to be a priority," he said.

Balls's speech was a reminder of why the next election will, in some respects, be more difficult for Labour than the Tories. Osborne likes to say that the coalition is cleaning up "Labour's mess" but, if elected in 2015, Labour will need to clean up his. When the Chancellor delivered his "emergency Budget" in June 2010, the newly-established Office for Budget Responsibility forecast a deficit of £37bn (2.1% of GDP) for 2014-15. But the failure of Osborne's plan to deliver growth (indeed, its success in delivering recession) means that, according to the latest independent forecasts, the next government will inherit a deficit of £96.1bn (5.8%), a figure that is only likely to rise as growth remains anaemic or non-existent.

Given these fiscal constraints, the biggest choice facing Balls and Ed Miliband is whether to pledge to stick to the Tories' spending plans for the first few years, as Labour did in 1997, or to offer a distinct alternative.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls told the TUC, "we will not make promises we cannot keep". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.