Curious George and the Guardian’s contrarian columnist

For once, Simon Jenkins is behind the curve as he expresses doubts about the coalition’s austerity m

As a columnist, Simon Jenkins likes to think of himself as something of a high-class contrarian: he invariably allows a consensus to form and then writes against it. There's something of the old-style Tory anarchist about his love of mischief and lofty provocation; his high, rhetorical Oxonian style, so redolent of the 1950s, has served him well through a long career of churning out 1,200 words three times a week to non-negotiable newspaper deadlines. One has to admire the old boy's stamina. And his Olympian range!

"I absolutely love writing columns; in fact, I live to write them," he once told me when I spent a weekend in his company at Casa Ecco, the philanthropist Drue Heinz's house on Lake Como, at a grandly titled conversazione dedicated to the form of the essay.

In the Guardian today Jenkins has belatedly written about George Osborne's austerity Budget and the coalition's hawkish deficit reduction programme. He has allowed a consensus to form -- nearly all the newspapers and columnists support doctrinaire cuts in public spending and are opposed to Keynesian hyperstimulus and deficit spending -- and has now decided to write against it.

Yet, for once, Jenkins is behind the curve as he expresses doubts about the austerity measures and warns of an impending double-dip recession.

Sound familiar? In truth, his column reads as little more than a hasty summary of the position of our own economics columnist, Professor David Blanchflower, who, since he joined us in September last year, has been absolutely consistent in his opposition to the foolishness of slashing spending during a downturn.

As I said recently on Any Questions -- when in response to my contribution Kenneth Clarke conceded, with characteristic candour, that withdrawing stimulus could lead us back into recession -- George Osborne is a conviction politician. He's been very impressive since becoming Chancellor; his performance in the House as he delivered his first Budget was outstanding. He is a low-tax, small-state, social and economic liberal. He believes that there is something morally reprehensible about running large Budget deficits. All of this is sincere.

However, I disagree with him profoundly, and fear that at a time of systemic crisis we are repeating the mistakes of the 1930s, when premature attempts to reduce spending and to balance the Budget plunged Britain and the United States back into severe recession.

At present, it's too early to say how the economy will respond to severe deficit reduction. But the government should have been more pragmatic and more flexible, and it should have learned from the mistakes of the past. It should have remained in wait-and-see mode. "O Lord," wrote Saint Augustine in his Confessions, "give me chastity and continence, but not yet."

Or, as the New York Times said in a recent leader about the coalition's needlessly draconian emergency Budget:

In the days since, the misguided nature of this budget has become clear. Some cutbacks were necessary, if only to reassure Europe's panicky bond markets. But the coalition's budget aims to cut too much too soon, in pursuit of a pointless structural budget surplus by 2015. Its real achievements are more likely to be drastically downsized public services and, if the fiscal austerity backfires, as it well might, a contribution to years of stagnation or worse in Britain and the rest of Europe.

There was more:

No reputable economic theory justifies this bleeding. In fact, most mainstream economists have argued for delaying the most severe cuts until a more robust economic recovery has begun. The coalition budget reflects Conservative Party ideology, which asserts that as the government withdraws money from the economy, private businesses and consumers will step in to replace it. That won't happen if Britons see only hard times ahead.

And already, as David Blanchflower writes in his weekly column tomorrow, all the available data indicates that consumer confidence is diminishing once more.

There may be trouble ahead.

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Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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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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