Cameron faces first Commons defeat

David Davis and Jack Straw manage to secure a debate on giving prisoners the vote.

David Cameron is staring down the barrel of his first Commons defeat as Prime Minister after Jack Straw and David Davis managed to secure a Commons debate on whether or not to give prisoners the vote.

With – according to Paul Waugh at PoliticsHome – just two Conservative MPs supporting votes for prisoners, Cameron is not in a strong position. The parliamentary arithmetic suggests the coalition will lose any vote on the topic.

The issue stems from a decision in the European Court of Human Rights, which argued that the UK had a "legal obligation" to let some prisoners vote. To avoid a potentially huge number of legal challenges from British prisoners, Cameron decided not to contest the decision and to allow prisoners serving sentences of less than four years the vote, despite confessing that the idea made him feel "physically ill".

It's a decision that has not gone down well with the right of the party. Davis used the discord over the issue among Conservatives to his advantage. He said that the thought of rapists being given the right to vote made him "physically sick".

"I yield to no one in my commitment to real human rights, but it is not an expression of human rights to give rapists and violent criminals the right to vote," said the former shadow home secretary.

Davis tickled the ears of his Conservative colleagues even further when he framed the debate as matter of parliament versus Europe.

"This is clearly a matter for parliament and not the European Court of Human Rights," Davis said. "It's for parliament to stand up and say, 'No, this is our decision, not yours,' and then for the government to go back and seek a solution."

Straw went down this route too, arguing that if he were still justice secretary, he "would actually welcome this debate because it would strengthen my hand for dealing with Strasbourg".

"One of the main arguments of the Strasbourg court is that there has not been a substantive debate on the policy. What we are saying is let's have an early debate on the policy now," continued Straw.

Since losing the Conservative leadership election in 2005, Davis has rarely passed on the opportunity of making life difficult for Cameron. In somewhat bizarre circumstances, Davis resigned as an MP in 2008 in an attempt to trigger a wider debate on civil liberties – apparently his position as shadow home secretary did not allow this, whereas standing in an virtually uncontested by-election would have.

This time, however, Davis seems to have got it right. While discord in the Lib Dems was very much a theme of 2010, an increasingly annoyed right wing of the Conservative Party – fed up with perceived concessions to the Lib Dems – might be the dominant issue for the coalition in 2011.

Ironically, it was the coalition's creation of the backbench business committee that has created this impasse. Without it, Straw and Davis would not have been able to orchestrate a debate on the issue. The coalition might yet be bloodied by one of its own policies.

 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.