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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The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.