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 Unfortunately for Osborne, that forecast is out of date.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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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.