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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.