Can austerity be popular?

Tories climb to 42 per cent in first post-Budget poll -- but remember, the pain has barely begun.

Today's Sun/YouGov poll, the first since the Budget, is very good news for the Conservatives. It puts the Tories up 3 points to 42 per cent, the party's highest level of support since January, and shows that, with the exception of the VAT increase, all of the key measures are backed by voters. Meanwhile, Labour is unchanged on 34 per cent and the Lib Dems are down 2 to 17 per cent.

So is this proof that austerity can be popular (if not progressive)? Not necessarily. For a start, many tax and spending changes become unpopular only once they're implemented. Gordon Brown's abolition of the 10p tax threshold didn't become a political headache until the year after his final Budget. Voters often mistakenly assume that cuts to spending and benefits won't hurt "people like me".

The coalition is also still in its honeymoon period, a factor that influenced George Osborne's decision to announce the most painful measures now. At the same time, Labour, deprived of a permanent leader, has been unable to offer effective opposition to the coalition and has yet to establish a credible position on either the deficit or spending cuts.

But the Tories are certainly confident they can secure re-election in 2015. MPs point to a recent study by Ben Broadbent and Adrian Paul of Goldman Sachs which looked at the relationship between fiscal tightening and electoral support. The results suggested that, if anything, fiscal rentrenchment increases support for the governing party.

As Broadbent and Paul write: "The three governments that have executed the most high-profile expenditure-based deficit reductions -- Ireland in 1987, Sweden in 1994 and Canada in 1994 -- were all re-elected."

The other particular advantage for the Tories is that, unlike Kenneth Clarke et al in the 1990s, their fiscal retrenchment is taking place in the first term, rather than the fourth, of a Conservative government. It will be up to the next Labour leader to mount an effective, progressive case against the coalition -- the sheer impact of cuts alone won't do it.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump