Cameron announces another squeeze on welfare

PM says he will look again at abolishing housing benefit for the under-25s.

David Cameron's appearance on The Andrew Marr Show this morning was proof that his political woes have not dented his supreme confidence. The PM boasted that he was on his "fourth leader of the Labour Party" (only if one includes Harriet Harman) and revealed that he had told Boris Johnson: "once you've done your job as London Mayor, don't think your job in politics is over." Boris, one suspects, rather agrees.

Cameron offered a preview of the message that will dominate the Conservative conference: we are facing up to the deficit, which Labour has "nothing to say about". He boasted that the government had reduced the deficit by a quarter since entering office and had created a million new private sector jobs. The reality isn't so positive. The deficit has fallen but, owing to the recession, borrowing so far this year is 22% higher than in the same period last year and the government is expected to miss its deficit target for 2012 by as much as £30bn. Private sector employment has risen by a million but 196,000 of these jobs were reclassified from the public sector and, after falling in recent months, unemployment is expected to rise next year.

Elsewhere, after already announcing £18bn of welfare cuts, Cameron signalled that the government was coming back for more. He suggested that he would look again at abolishing housing benefit for the under-25s and at reducing working age welfare more generally (universal benefits for the elderly are, for now, safe). But he vowed that these measures would be combined with plans to raise more from the rich. George Osborne has ruled out the introduction of a "mansion tax" and higher council tax bands, but Cameron insisted he would find other ways of ensuring the rich pay their "fair share". "We will always be fair and be seen to be fair," he declared, a test that the decision to abolish the 50p tax rate clearly failed. If he is to secure Liberal Democrat agreement for further welfare cuts, he will need to offer something more than another "crackdown" on tax avoidance (making the rich pay taxes they're meant to be paying anyway, is not the same as raising taxes on the rich).

Economic recovery remains the precondition for Cameron's political recovery and, asked if he saw "green shoots", the PM replied that he was not "a forecaster". But even if the economy returns to growth this quarter, the problem for Cameron remains that most people will still be getting poorer. A freeze in council tax and a cap on train fare rises of 1% above inflation will do little to ease the pain.

David Cameron arrives in Birmingham with his wife Samantha Cameron for the Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.