The man’s not for turning

Osborne’s lack of a plan B could prove his undoing. But it is the British people who will pay the pr

George Osborne grandly set out his economic vision in his Mais Lecture to City luminaries earlier this year. A smaller state coupled with higher exports and increased investment were his stated objectives. As Chancellor, he is now pursing these goals and keeping his fingers crossed that after he has hacked off chunks of the public sector, the private sector will step in to fill the gap.

If the unprecedented boom in exports and business investment needed to realise Osborne's plan doesn't show up, his approach, to borrow a phrase from Lady Thatcher, can be described thus: "You turn if you want to; the man's not for turning." Urged on by Tory backbenchers, the Chancellor refuses to countenance a plan B, while his Liberal Democrat coalition partners wonder what brake, if any, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, is applying to this ideological adventure.

Alistair Darling, Osborne's predecessor, set out a plan to halve the deficit in four years starting in March 2011. This was controversial with many within Labour: the balance of tax rises to spending cuts was questioned, as was the need for such rapid fiscal consolidation. Despite this, the judgement of the new Office for Budget Responsibility was clear: the deficit would have been reduced from over 10 per cent of GDP in 2010/11 to 3.9 per cent by 2014/15 under Labour's plans.

Crucially Darling had a plan B. If the economy got worse and the prospects of high unemployment or a double-dip recession increased, the tempo of deficit reduction could be changed accordingly – the pace of fiscal tightening would be set by the pace of economic recovery (Vince Cable, too, argued for this during the election campaign).

Conversely, Osborne has decided to go further and faster. He is planning on tightening by an additional £40bn over Darling's plans by 2014/15, as set out in his June Budget and this month's Spending Review. He has rhetorically lashed himself to the mast of eliminating the structural deficit in one parliament, allowing very little flexibility if the outlook changes. He is also relying more on spending cuts, and less on tax rises, putting him at odds not only with Labour, but also with Ken Clarke.

The Justice Secretary, while chancellor under John Major in the 1990s, achieved a similar rebalancing of the economy and relied much more on tax rises and less on spending cuts to repair the public finances, in the wake of the last recession, than Osborne proposes now. Then exports and business investment grew strongly, although not as strongly as Osborne needs them to at present. And conditions then were very different from those in 2010: exports were helped by a booming world economy and investment increased by the need for business to respond to the revolution in information technology and communications. Neither seems likely over the next few years.

We should also remember the 1930s and the 1980s. In both cases, state spending was cut back as Tory governments, clinging to approaches variously referred to as "the Treasury view", "sound money" and "monetarism", waited for a private-sector recovery to take hold. Yet, when the problem is too little demand, who seriously advocates cutting back demand further? This is economics driven by ideology and lacking in common sense.

Today the Chancellor's rhetoric has made dealing with the deficit the sole aim of macroeconomic policy but, as the axe falls and jobs are lost from the public sector, there is a great danger that the private sector is not strong enough to absorb the newly unemployed workers. If this proves to be the case, unemployment will rise and, with it, the welfare bill as tax income falls. The deficit will worsen, forcing Osborne, who has left himself with no option, to cut spending further. It is self-defeating austerity that could well create an economic death spiral.

Moreover, in the 1930s and the 1980s the recovery did eventually come, but years later than it had to, and with a high social cost in unemployment, poverty and crime. In both cases the lack of an active regional policy, as now, left pockets of higher deprivation blighted by structural joblessness. And in both cases there was an alternative that could have been taken if the government had not been so blinkered.

One hopes that the private sector will be strong enough to counteract the effects of Osborne's measures, and that Britain will enjoy an exporting and investment renaissance and workers move near-seamlessly from the public payroll to newly created jobs in industry. However, history suggests that the odds of this occurring, especially at a time of continued global economic turmoil, are not high.

Osborne's lack of a plan B could prove his undoing. Unfortunately it is the British people, and not the likes of Osborne, who ultimately will pay the price.

Chuka Umunna is the Labour MP for Streatham and a member of the House of Commons Treasury select committee. Duncan Weldon is an economist and former adviser to the opposition Treasury team.

GETTY
Show Hide image

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.