Our cuts will be deeper than Thatcher's, says . . . Osborne? Darling?

The Chancellor's comments on spending cuts have caused controversy, but haven't we heard this somewh

A story that has received considerable coverage this morning is Alistair Darling's admission that, even under Labour, drastic public spending cuts will be necessary.

Asked by the BBC how this government's cuts would compare to Margaret Thatcher's in the 1980s, he said:

They will be deeper and tougher.

Where we make the precise comparison, I think, is secondary to an acknowledgement that these reductions will be tough.

But, hang on. Haven't we heard this somewhere before? Today, the Guardian has the headline "Alistair Darling: we will cut deeper than Margaret Thatcher". Amusingly, a month ago to the day, the Mirror proclaimed: "George Osborne to make spending cuts deeper Margaret Thatcher's".

The article quotes the Tory shadow chancellor as saying:

Yes -- tougher than Margaret Thatcher. We are not shy about taking the tough decisions.

George Osborne has today been quick to jump on Darling's comments as evidence that "Labour has been found out", and has been dishonest in claiming that it can continue to spend.

This is disingenuous: no one denies that cuts will be necessary, but the question, as our economics columnist David Blanchflower, among others, has pointed out, is one of timing.

But Darling's remarks do indicate inconsistency in Labour's position -- the party has appeared torn between a Keynesian agenda and the urge to follow the Tory promises of swingeing cuts, in much the same way as the Tories have clearly felt compelled to out-Labour Labour on the NHS.

The close symmetry of Osborne and Darling's phrasing is almost beyond satire. But this seems to be less a common admission of an indisputable truth (that we must have "tougher" cuts than Thatcher's, asap) and more another sign of the void of ideology that lies at the centre of the present political debate.

Voter apathy is hardly surprising. It doesn't look like much of a choice, does it?

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.