Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson find common ground on Europe

The Shadow Chancellor and former Business Secretary agree on how coalition policy is failing and wha

There is much chatter in Westminster today about an op-ed in today’s Guardian jointly penned by Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson. 

Predictably, the content of the article – arguing for a more balanced European economic agenda to stimulate growth in parallel with fiscal responsibility – attracted far less comment than the fact that its authors represent an unusual coupling. The two famously disagreed about Briatin’s prospects for euro entry when it was on the agenda in Tony Blair’s first term in government. More generally, they occupied opposing trenches for most of the long Blair-Brown civil war.

They have, it seems, patched up their differences for at least long enough to agree a position on European policy and even to share a platform at a conference this afternoon. The two Labour bigwigs sat alongside European Competition Commissioner Joaguin Almunia and former CBI Director General Richard Lambert on a discussion panel at an event hosted by the Centre for European Reform.

Predictably, Balls was asked at one point if he agreed with Lord Mandelson on the proposition (set out by the former European trade commissioner in a lecture last week) that Britain was heading for a referendum on its membership of a newly configured European Union. The shadow chancellor conceded that such an outcome might indeed by inevitable, but insisted it was not a matter of policy urgency for now. He then turned the question around to attack the government and the Tories for being unable to engage effectively in EU affairs. Ministerial fear of fanatical euroscpticism on the back benches is, said Balls, damaging British interests: “I don’t remember a time when British political leaders were less influential on decisions that have such a big impact.” David Cameron’s decision to walk away from a Brussels summit last December – the famous veto of a pan-EU fiscal stability treaty – was “catastrophic short-termism.”

Mandelson agreed, adding with more than a hint of mischief, that the government was, he believed, much more engaged and pro-European in private talks than it dared let on in public. He suggested the coalition’s real European policy was being conducted “privately, almost secretly.”

Perhaps just as interesting from a policy point of view, Ed Balls, in the discussion of how the eurozone ought to evolve in response to the current crisis, backed the idea of a unified single currency bond. He said: “There must be mutualisation of debt obligations” – which effectively means a eurobond and, by extension, a much more substantial level of financial integration among euro member states. I’m not sure the shadow chancellor has come out so explicitly on this issue before.

Also, even deeper into EU Kremlinology: Almunia was extraordinarily vocal in his criticism of the way the political process of eurozone crisis management turned into a bilateral negotiation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. The Commissioner referred to this as a “duopoly” and expressed the hope that the next stage of the crisis might be characterised by a “return to intergovernmental” ways of doing things. This might not sound like much, but in terms of Brussels protocol it is pretty unusual for a Commissioner to slam national heads of government so explicitly. There is clearly a lot of relief on the Commission that the “Merkozy” alliance has been disbanded. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.