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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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