Davis's call for faster cuts is economically reckless

An accelerated cuts programme would prolong the recession.

The most notable section of David Davis's speech on the economy this afternoon, provocatively entitled "There is an alternative: why the government needs a growth strategy", was that on the spending cuts. Davis's contention is that George Osborne, rather than going "too far, too fast", has cut too slowly. He pointed out that that deficit was £125bn last year and challenged Keynesians to explain why "a fiscal stimulus of this size is not already making our economy grow."

It's an argument that many on the Tory backbenches will sympathise with but it's also hopelessly misconceived. The deficit that Davis highlights is not the result of Osborne borrowing for growth but of a collapse in tax receipts caused by the recession and a higher-than-expected benefits bill (the cost of failure, in other words). And while it's true that the cuts to current spending have been more modest than many claim (current spending is down 2.9% or £11.5bn on 2009-10 levels), the cuts to capital spending, the most valuable spending in growth terms, have been far larger, with investment down 47.9% (£24.4bn) in the last two years.

These cuts go some way to explaining why Britain, with the exception of Italy, is the only G20 country to have suffered a second recession. When consumer spending is depressed and businesses are hoading cash, the government must act as a spender of last resort and stimulate growth through tax cuts and higher spending. If it fails to do so, it crashes the economy, which is exactly what has happened.

Davis also underestimated the damage that faster cuts would have done. An accelerated cuts programme, with even greater job losses (393,000 public sector jobs have been cut so far), would likely have tipped the economy back into recession even earlier.

Former Conservative leadership candidate David Davis. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.