Labour goes on the attack with new Cameron poster

New poster mocks Tory election line, stating: "I'm cutting the NHS. Not the deficit."

With the Tories preparing to gather in Birmingham, the Labour attack machine has sprung into life with the launch of a new poster and a borrowing counter. Following her Q&A with Andy Burnham earlier this week, my colleague Caroline Crampton revealed that Labour was planning a parody of the famous "airbrushed" image of Cameron - and here it is.

The line "I'm cutting the NHS" is based on Treasury figures showing that since 2010, health spending has fallen from £105,073 million to £104,333 million in real terms, while the line "not the deficit" is based on the most recent borrowing figures from the ONS, which showed that borrowing so far this financial year was 21.8% (£10.6bn) higher than in the same period last year.

Labour states:

This means that in the first five months of the year the UK was borrowing:

o        £69.3 million more a day
o        £2.9 million more an hour
o        £48,112 more a minute
o        £802 more a second

In response, we can expect the Tories to point out that they have reduced the deficit by a quarter since coming to office (from £159bn in 2009-10 to £119.3bn in 2011-12), while arguing that the NHS figures are merely the result of an underspend, not a deliberate decision to cut.

But while George Osborne may have a good story to tell on the deficit at the moment (polling found that voters were more inclined to support the coalition's austerity measures when told that annual borrowing had fallen by a quarter), the disappearance of growth means that this trend will not continue. Forecasters expect the government to miss its deficit target for this year (£119.9bn) by as much as £30bn. For the first time since Osborne entered No. 11, borrowing is set rise in annual terms, a significant blow to his political narrative of "balancing the books". By 2015, the Tories hope, the situation will have improved, but for now, this is a powerful attack line for Labour.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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