Economists slam Tory calls for cuts

The Keynesians strike back.

So, after last week's letter to the Sunday Times from 20 economists, supporting the Tory demand for the government to begin cutting spending this year, it's the turn of the Keynesians to strike back.

Today's Financial Times carries not one, but two letters from 67 economists in total, warning that early spending cuts could tip the economy back into recession and rebutting claims that the deficit is "out of control".

The second, written by Lord Skidelsky and signed by 57 others, including Joseph Stiglitz and our economics columnist, David Blanchflower, is the more significant.

Here are the key passages:

In urging a faster pace of deficit reduction to reassure the financial markets, the signatories of the Sunday Times letter implicitly accept as binding the views of the same financial markets whose mistakes precipitated the crisis in the first place!

They seek to frighten us with the present level of the deficit but mention neither the automatic reduction that will be achieved as and when growth is resumed nor the effects of growth on investor confidence. How do the letter's signatories imagine foreign creditors will react if implementing fierce spending cuts tips the economy back into recession? To ask -- as they do -- for independent appraisal of fiscal policy forecasts is sensible. But for the good of the British people -- and for fiscal sustainability -- the first priority must be to restore robust economic growth. The wealth of the nation lies in what its citizens can produce.

George Osborne's claim that the economic consensus favours the Tories has been exposed as false.

The decision to send the letter to the FT (it was originally rumoured that it would appear in this week's Sunday Times) was a canny one. It lends the letter a far greater degree of authority; and it appears in a title that also argues against the deficit hawks. The paper's leader today concludes:

Friday's letters are an embarrassment for the Tories, above all, who sought to capitalise on the first letter. They must learn -- soon -- that their desire for simple political messages is no excuse for nuance-free policy positions.

The FT is often mistakenly assumed to be a cheerleader for the free market, but it has actually endorsed Labour at every election since 1992. And it would be foolish of the Tories to count on its support this time round.

What is surprising is that this letters war has started at a time when the differences between the parties on trimming public spending have ostensibly narrowed. David Cameron has promised that a Conservative government would avoid "swingeing" cuts and Alistair Darling has insisted (against the wishes of Ed Balls) that any windfall from lower than expected unemployment must be used to reduce the deficit, not for a pre-election giveaway.

But with the economy as fragile as it is, the Tories' plan to begin cutting spending from this year remains deeply irresponsible. Any hope George Osborne had of presenting himself as a credible chancellor-in-waiting has evaporated.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.