The poster that the Lib Dems want you to forget

And how Osborne misled us all over his VAT increase.

Lib Dem

It was unclear whether George Osborne would raise VAT right up until the moment he stood up in the Commons. After all, during the election campaign, the then shadow chancellor insisted he had "no plans" to raise this regressive tax.

Here's the key quotation:

The plans we set out involved around 80 per cent of the work coming from spending restraint and about 20 per cent from tax increases . . . The tax increases are already in place; the plans do not include an increase in VAT.

Nothing has changed since then to necessitate a sharp rise in VAT to 20 per cent (as Will Straw points out, this was far from an "unavoidable" tax increase). In fact, the deficit, then thought to stand at £167bn, is now £149bn. The grim conclusion must be that Osborne hid this tax rise from the voters for electoral purposes.

There were some key figures, the Lib Dems and Ed Balls among them, prepared to sound the alarm during the campaign. Nick Clegg's party even released a now infamous poster warning of a Tory VAT "bombshell". They were right about that but, presumably, never planned to help drop it.

One wonders how Simon Hughes, who last week denounced VAT as "the most regressive tax", feels today. Will the Lib Dems' deputy leader have the courage to speak up for his party's grass roots? Will Charles Kennedy? Will Paddy Ashdown? One hopes so.

There is no doubt that this tax rise will hit the poorest hardest. As the Fabian Society's Tim Horton has noted, while the richest 10 per cent pay £1 in every £25 in VAT, the poorest 10 per cent pay £1 in every £7.

But not only is this tax hike socially unjust, it is also economically defective. With growth weaker than expected, there are few worse possible responses than raising VAT.

A recent report for the Centre for Retail Research found that raising the VAT rate to 20 per cent would cost each household £425 a year on average. It added that the resultant drop in consumer spending could cost 47,000 jobs and lead to the closure of almost 10,000 shops.

In the Commons, as Harriet Harman attacked the Lib Dems' betrayal and Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg smirked away, one was reminded of the closing words of George Orwell's Animal Farm:

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Today was the day that the Lib Dems lost their soul.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.