Nick Clegg’s doublethink on cuts

Clegg admits the cuts are having a “chilling effect” (but supports them anyway).

In today's Financial Times, Nick Clegg makes the startling admission that the coalition's spending cuts are having a "chilling psychological effect" on the public. Clegg's words put him at odds with George Osborne, who has consistently argued that the cuts will increase confidence and that excessive state spending is "crowding out" private investment.

As Anatole Kalestky pointed out in an important column in the Times (£) on Thursday, Osborne's views are based on the theory of Ricardian equivalence (propounded by the economist David Ricardo) – the belief that whether a government finances its spending through borrowing or taxation, the effect on demand is the same.

Kaletsky wrote:

In a paper written in 1820, Ricardo examined whether a government that went to war would be better off collecting £20m in taxes or borrowing the same amount at an interest rate of 5 per cent or £1m a year. "In point of economy, there is no real difference," he concluded. "For £20m in one payment and £1m per annum for ever . . . are precisely of the same value.

Osborne and other anti-Keynesians have since exploited this theory to argue that the public treats government borrowing as "deferred taxation" and, therefore, spends more when the state spends less.

But as Kaletsky notes, this respone ignores Ricardo's explicit rejection of the doctrine. Immediately after the passage on the theoretical equivalence of state borrowing and taxation, he wrote: "But the people who paid the taxes never so estimate them, and therefore do not manage their private affairs accordingly . . . It would be difficult to convince a man possessed of £20,000, or any other sum, that a perpetual payment of £50 per annum was equally burdensome with a single tax of £1,000." In practice, human beings do not see borrowing as being comparable with taxation.

The disastrous final-quarter growth figures proved that the public is reducing, not increasing, its spending in response to the cuts. The widely predicted surge in consumer spending, as shoppers rushed to beat the New Year increase in VAT, never materialised. Yet in spite of all this, Clegg insists that the coalition will maintain its "fiscal stance". With the economy at renewed risk of a double-dip recession, he will have to perform many more intellectual contortions in the months to come.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Could tactical voting stop Brexit?

Could tactical votes soften the Brexit blow?

Could tactical voting save Britain from the hardest of exits from the European Union?

That's the hope of Open Britain, which has unveiled a list of 20 seats held by supporters of a hard Brexit (19 Conservatives and one Labour MP, Kate Hoey) in areas that either split evenly in the referendum or backed a Remain vote, and a list of 20 seats held by pro-Europeans: among them Labour MPs Pat McFadden and Liz Kendall, Liberal Democrat MPs Nick Clegg and Tom Brake, and Caroline Lucas, the Greens' sole MP. (Read the full list here.)

"Remain group seeks to oust pro-Brexit MPs" is the Guardian's splash. The intiative has received the thumbs up from Peter Mandelson on Newsnight and Tony Blair in the Guardian. But will it work?

A quick look at the seats in question shows the challenge for anyone hoping for a pro-European front to frustrate Brexit. Theresa Villiers has a majority of more than 7,000 over Labour: and if you're a voter in Chipping Barnet who backed a Remain vote because you were worried about your house price, is Jeremy Corbyn really the answer to your problems? (That said, it's worth noting that thanks to the scale of the 2015 defeat, Chipping Barnet is one of the seats Labour would have to win to get a majority in the House of Commons.)

Or take, say, Kate Hoey in Vauxhall, one of the few people in Labour who can claim to be a unifying figure these days. Yes, she is deeply unpopular in her local party who have mounted several attempts to remove her. Yes, Vauxhall voted heavily to Remain. But - as Jessica Elgot finds in her profile for the Guardian- it also has a large amount of social housing and has more children living in poverty than all but 51 other seats in the House of Commons. There are a great number of people who believe their own interests are better served by sending a Labour MP to Westminster rather than refighting the referendum.

That's a reminder of three things: the first is that the stereotype of the Remain vote as people straight out of the Boden catalogue misses a number of things. The second is that for many people, Brexit will take a back seat.

But the big problem is that you can't make an anti-Brexit - which, by necessity, is essentially an anti-Conservative - alliance work if the main anti-Conservative party is so weak and unattractive to most people. "Voting pro-European" may give Labour's Corbynsceptics a way to advocate a vote for Labour that doesn't endorse Jeremy Corbyn. That doesn't mean it will succeed in stopping Brexit.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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