Losing the argument on cuts

David Cameron continues to preach to the converted.

At Left Foot Forward, the Fabian Society's Sunder Katwala offers a very interesting analysis of the debate over the government's deficit reduction and spending cuts programme. Katwala's principal claim is that the government has "lost ground over one of its central arguments" – that the cuts will "meet the fairness test".

Using YouGov polling which asked voters, between June and December 2010, whether they thought the spending cuts were being done fairly or unfairly, Katwala has produced a "fair cuts index" which appears to show pretty conclusively that popular attitudes have shifted decisively against the government, By mid-September, the index showed a net fairness rating of -21. And the Spending Review the following month failed to yield a "fairness bounce" for the government. There is a lesson to be drawn from this, he says:

[O]pponents of the government's agenda have been relatively effective – on the question of fairness – at persuading the middle ground of public opinion, while the government appears to have been much more guilty of preaching only to the already converted. The attitudes data presents an important blow to a government "narrative" that all reasonable people understand that the cuts are necessary and fair – and that the opposition is made up of a smattering of "denialists" and refuseniks who would always oppose everything they do. This is a popular argument with commentators who champion the government – but it does not seem to be persuading many people beyond the core 30 per cent of the electorate who have always been satisfied with the government's strategy. The content and tone of the government's "there is no alternative" argument risks patronising a considerable swath of opinion, which was at least open to the government's argument six months ago.

If his appearance this morning on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show is anything to go by, that's a lesson that David Cameron has yet to learn – he was deploying "Tina" for all it was worth. Marr in fact raised the issue of fairness, pointing out that VAT, which the government has raised to 20 per cent, is a regressive tax.

Cameron played a dead bat and dodged the question: "You have to ask . . . what if we weren't dealing with the deficit." As if the government had no alternative to raising VAT. Indeed, he stuck to the Tories' pre-election playbook throughout the interview. So there were the ritual invocations of "Labour's job tax", numerous reminders of the "vast pit of debt [the government was] left" and the "mess" the coalition inherited in May.

He even conjured the spectres of Ireland and Greece, though, as David Blanchflower points out in the current issue of the New Statesman, "What has happened in Greece and Ireland is largely irrelevant." And there was barely a word about "fairness".

Katwala ends his piece by observing that the government is coming under pressure from the "anti-egalitarian right" to abandon talk of fairness altogether:

Supporters of the government from the anti-egalitarian right – voiced by Policy Exchange and ConservativeHome – is that the coalition government made a mistake in making the "fairness" claim for its deficit reduction programme, and an even bigger one in seeming to accept distributional analysis as an important part of "fairness". The argument is that the government should drop the fairness claim – or at least reframe it, rejecting distributional analysis in favour of a different argument about who deserves what. The housing benefit argument is one area where the government is trying to do this.

Whether reframing the debate as one of desert will be a more effective strategy for the government remains to be seen. But this is a useful reminder to those on the egalitarian left that considerations of desert and reciprocity have been as important a part of the debate about "fairness" in this country as have questions about redistribution.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.