Balls is right to target Mervyn King

The Bank of England governor crossed a line when he called for a “plan A”.

Just a few weeks ago, Ed Balls questioned whether Mervyn King's support for the government's austerity measures was as sincere as it appeared. He told Andrew Marr: "I don't think that Mervyn King in his heart of hearts really believes that crushing the economy in this way is the right way to get the economy moving."

But in an interview in today's FT, Labour's Keynesian pitbull launches a long-overdue assault on the governor of the Bank of England. He tells the paper: "The last thing you ever want is for the Bank of England to be drawn into the political arena . . . central bank governors have to be very careful about tying themselves too closely to fiscal strategies, especially when they are extreme and are making their job on monetary policy more complicated."

Balls is right. King's declaration this week that "there has to be a plan A" (a line first used by George Osborne himself) was his most overtly political statement yet. It amounted to an explicit rejection of Labour's calls for a "plan B".

As Sunder Katwala notes, it was little surprise that David Cameron chose to quote King at length during this week's PMQs. In one of his answers to Ed Miliband, Cameron said:

Above all, what I would say to him is what the governor of the Bank of England said this morning: "There has to be a plan A . . . This country needs fiscal consolidation to deal with the biggest Budget deficit in peacetime."

There are two possible explanations for King's behaviour. Either he is a highly naive man who does not anticipate that his words will be used for political purposes, or he is a highly partisan man who believes, against all evidence to the contrary, that the coalition's premature fiscal retrenchment will increase growth. The second seems the likelier explanation, but neither is palatable and both raise the question: is this man fit to lead an independent Bank of England?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.