Can Cameron hold the line on cuts?

Tory pledge to ring-fence NHS and overseas aid under fire from Cable and the right.

In his Mail on Sunday column, Vince Cable reminds us of a Lib Dem policy that deserves to be better known than it is. He writes:

Nor is it honest to say that some government budgets, such as that of the NHS, should be "ring-fenced" from cuts. By doing so, the government and the Tories are condemning other valued services to deeply damaging cuts.

Alone among the three main parties, the Lib Dems have avoided promising to ring-fence spending in any area. It's one stance, along with the party's pledge to raise the income-tax threshold to £10,000, that deserves serious attention.

Could it turn out to be a canny move? The line that all government departments should share the pain equally could prove to be effective. It certainly gives the Lib Dems a chance to split the Tories.

There is growing anger on the Conservative right over David Cameron's pledge to protect the health and overseas aid budgets, while cutting spending elsewhere by up to 20 per cent. The implications for defence, in particular, trouble the Tory grass roots.

This week's Spectator leader (not available online) gives us a flavour of the anger:

As Mr Cameron says, we're all in this together. So why should the police and military suffer, while the NHS bureaucracy keeps every penny of the money it has been force-fed?

The Tory leader's promise to protect spending on the NHS and international development is an essential part of his "detoxification" strategy, but it will cause him immense problems if the Tories win power. With an eye to these tensions, Labour is set to promise to ring-fence the defence budget for 2010-2011, with a £1.5bn spending boost for the Afghan war.

Cameron's response will be worth studying.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.