How Cameron disguised the true level of cuts

The Prime Minister attempted to hide extra cuts by the coalition in his speech on public service ref

In his speech on public-service reform yesterday, David Cameron attempted to assuage fears over the coalition's spending cuts. He said:

[When] we're done with these cuts, spending on public services will actually still be at the same level as it was in 2006. We will still be spending 41 per cent of our GDP on the public sector.

The Prime Minister's words were deceptive on two levels. First, he omitted to mention that this represents a reduction of more than 6 per cent of GDP (see table B2). Under Margaret Thatcher, spending fell by an equivalent amount (from 45.1 per cent of GDP to 39.2 per cent) but over 11 years, not five. Even then, the fall was largely due to economic growth, not spending cuts.

As I've pointed out before, during the Iron Lady's time in office, spending rose by 1.1 per cent a year on average - the reason why it was so absurd for Nick Clegg to vow that there would be no return to the "savage cuts" of the 1980s.

Cameron was also wrong to claim that spending will be 41 per cent of GDP "when we're done with these cuts". True, spending will be 41.8 per cent in 2013-2014 but, as the graph below shows, it will fall again to 40.4 per cent in 2014-2015 and to 39.3 per cent in 2015-2016. Thus, the Prime Minister hid additional spending reductions of nearly 2 per cent of GDP. After the coalition's programme of cuts is complete, spending will actually be at the same level as it was in 2004, not 2006.


Another significant detail is that the government's spending cuts are permanent, not temporary. When asked by a Fire Brigade worker last summer if funding would be restored once the deficit has been addressed, Cameron replied:

The direct answer to your question, should we cut things now and go back later and try and restore them later, [is] I think we should be trying to avoid that approach.

The Prime Minister's insistence that we should try to "avoid that approach" reveals an ideological attachment to the small state and to low levels of spending. The result will be permanently shrunken public services. Cameron is free to argue for this position, but next time he should do so on the basis of fact, not myth.

UPDATE: I should have pointed out that spending under Thatcher reached a peak of 48.1 per cent in 1982-83 before falling to 38.9 per cent in 1988-89, a reduction of 9.2 per cent, larger than the 8.1 per cent reduction planned by the coalition. But my substantive point stands: Cameron is hiding the true extent of the cuts.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.