Either Britain will bail out the euro, or it won't. There's no middle way

David Cameron wants to fudge the issue with a technical argument about the IMF. It won't work.

Domestic debate around the euro crisis has taken yet another awkward turn for the prime minister. An essential aspect of the government's political strategy is to draw a clear distinctions between, on one side, a failing single currency project, ill-starred from the outset, and, on the other side, a wise Britain that chose to remain free to set its own interest rates and is blessed with a flexible exchange rate.

By extension, UK taxpayers should not be expected to contribute to a eurozone rescue fund. Greece's solvency woes are not, according to that argument, our problem. Except, of course, plainly they are, for at least two reasons. First, crisis in the eurozone is continuing to depress confidence and demand in the global economy, which is the main reason why growth is so sluggish in the UK. Second, if the Greek crisis is not contained, it will spread to larger European economies - Italy is next in the firing line - and a solvency crisis there would drag down those banks, including those in the UK, that hold European sovereign debt. A prolonged eurozone crisis will eventually become another banking crisis.

So it is in the UK's interests that a bailout works and if UK capital - whether administered through the IMF or bilaterally - is required for that outcome, well, then that surely is the national interest too. Downing Street is trying to delineate different kinds of contributions, attributing different moral weights depending on how "European" they look. If I understand it right, the ethical judgement maps out roughly as follows: If the IMF helps a struggling nation directly, that is a "good" bailout - and so UK taxpayer's money can be used. Britain might increase its IMF contributions on that basis. If the IMF joins forces with the ECB and eurozone governments to create a collective mechanism to support the euro that is a "bad" bailout - the UK would not increase its contributions on such a basis.

The obvious question is how the government plans to enforce the distinction before agreeing to pay more. The UK is already wading into deep diplomatic water by hinting it would hold any proposed EU treaty changes hostage, demanding repatriation of powers in exchange for cooperation. Now is it hinting it will withhold support for the IMF unless it gets guarantees that the Fund will not ally itself too closely with any European political project to save the euro?

Meanwhile, UK government policy - confirmed by Mark Hoban, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in an emergency parliamentary debate today - is to impress on eurozone governments the "remorseless logic" of further fiscal integration.

So, just to be clear: The government (or at least its Conservative side) think it is a terrible idea for sovereign nations to bind themselves into a single currency and yet supports the urgent acceleration of that process. It rejects the contribution of British taxpayers' money to a bailout that might explicitly support a euro stabilisation process but would be happy to contribute to one that helped eurozone countries independently, thereby supporting euro stabilisation indirectly. This is not a sustainable position.

The ultimate problem for David Cameron remains the same as it has been for weeks. He has to choose between being a European statesman akin to his peers in Cannes and being an authentic Tory sceptic. Either he thinks the euro must succeed and that Britain, as a major EU player, must play a constructive role in working out a technical solution to the crisis. Or he thinks that Britain should step back from the whole disaster and, out of parsimony or moral horror at the idea of a Euro superstate, keep Treasury money away from the entire business. Or, to put it bluntly, either he is signing us up to a bailout or he isn't. He can try laundering the argument through technical IMF questions for a while. (And Labour seem for the time being to play along with the distinction.) But it won't work for long and it will be exposed by the sceptics as dishonest as soon as any debate on UK contributions comes to parliament.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

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