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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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.

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