Will the Tories drop their pledge to protect NHS spending?

Figures from left and right urge Conservatives to abandon costly pledge to ring-fence NHS spending.

At this morning's cabinet meeting, George Osborne cited figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggesting that spending in non-ring-fenced departments could fall by 15 to 20 per cent. Unfortunately for Osborne, that forecast is out of date.

More recently, the IFS has suggested that spending in unprotected areas will need to fall by 25 per cent for the Tories to meet their deficit reduction targets.

In light of this, David Cameron is under growing pressure to abandon his pledge to ring-fence spending on the NHS and on international development.

Earlier this lunchtime, Nigel Lawson, who remains an influential figure on the Conservative right, told The World at One that "nothing should be ring-fenced. Everything should be judged on its merit."

The economist and Labour peer Meghnad Desai has also called on the Tories to break their pre-election pledge to protect spending on the National Health Service.

"Anything said before the election is off. Health is overextended," Desai said. "We can get something out of the NHS."

Nick Clegg, of course, distinguished himself during the election campaign by refusing to ring-fence spending in any area. Here's what he told the BBC back in March:

We're not entering into this Dutch auction about ring-fencing. Good outcomes aren't determined by drawing a red line around government departmental budgets.

The Tories' pledge on the NHS had everything to do with political positioning and nothing to do with economics. Clegg was right to call them out on it.

Intriguingly, the final coalition agreement rather ambiguously stated:

We will guarantee that health spending increases in real terms in each year of the parliament, while recognising the impact this decision will have on other departments.

The impact that it will have on other vital areas (most significantly, education) means that this commitment is unsustainable. Will Clegg now have the confidence to put this argument to Cameron?

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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MPs should follow Emmanuel Macron's example and stand up to the far right

Where does a liberal centrist's victory fit into your narrative of inevitable decline? 

“Après le #Brexit, le printemps des peuples est inévitable !” wrote the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, days after Brexit. Well, the blossom is on the trees, and Le Pen is through to the second round of the French presidential elections, so presumably we’re bang in the middle of that inevitable “people’s spring”. 

After all, a referendum that left Britain’s metropolitan elite weeping into their EU flags was swiftly followed by the complete overturning of US political and ethical traditions. Donald Trump defied polling and won the Presidency, all the while proclaiming he was “Mr Brexit”.  

Then, in December, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi held a referendum on constitutional changes and lost. Both Europhiles and Eurosceptics read the runes. Ukip’s on and off leader Nigel Farage crowed of 2016: “First we had the Brexit deliverance, then the Trump triumph, then the Italian rebellion. Democracy and the rebirth of the nation state!”

As this illustrates, the far-right want you to believe all these results are linked, and that they represent a popular, democratic movement. In the UK at least, the liberal left has drunk the English champagne. Labour is agonising over how to reconnect with “traditional” voters Ukip is apparently so in touch with – which don’t seem to include ethnic minorities, young people and those living in cities. Being “tough on immigration” is the answer to modern woes, and globalisation is a dirty word that can only represent multinational interests and not, say, cheaper food on the table. 

There are debates to be had about globalisation, of course, and the lingering impact of the 2008 financial crash, and the fact wages haven’t risen, and public services have been cut, and that in some northern towns, people from different ethnic backgrounds live segregated lives. But if the first round of the French presidential election can do us one favour, it’s to dispense with the narrative that there is something inevitable about the end of liberalism. 

Emmanuel Macron, an unapologetically pro-EU social, economic and political liberal, led the way in the first round of the French presidential election. The polls put him on course to become President.

If he wins, perhaps it’s time to revisit the narrative of decline. To remind ourselves that Hillary Clinton, now written off, won the popular vote in the United States, and among growing demographics of voters too. That a far-right  Austrian presidential candidate was defeated in 2016. That as recently as March, the Dutch mainstream prevailed against the far-right original Trump, Geert Wilders, and that the left-green leader Jesse Klaver enjoyed a surge instead. And that, although it’s now commonplace to assume Canada is just “nicer” in electing a liberal, Justin Trudeau, his party actually overturned nearly a decade of tar sands Conservative rule. 

Should liberals start to join these dots, voters should have the right to ask why both Labour and the Conservatives have jumped on the populists' bandwagon so eagerly. Why, among previously economically liberal Conservatives, are Nicky Morgan, Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry left as lone voices on the back benches. And why, in Labour, is patchy research linking depressed wages and immigration now exhalted as long-established fact? 

Liberalism may be out of fashion, but it’s not dead yet, as any of the Tory MPs in south-west marginal seats know too well. By the time Farage’s “independence day” on 24 June arrives, the narrative may have changed again. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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