Labour's preferred attack on pensions is going nowhere

The hated 3 per cent charge hidden in last year's spending review is non-negotiable and unions know

Coming as it does the day after George Osborne's Autumn Statement on the economy, today's strike by public sector workers feels in many respects like a broad rejection of the government's entire austerity agenda. That feeling is exaggerated by the Chancellor's decision yesterday to pay for some of his growth-boosting plans by capping public sector wages. Even if inflation falls back from its current high levels that will feel like a cut. The move will be widely interpreted by strikers as a provocation.

There is, of course, a specific dispute at the heart of today's action - the government's proposals to reform public sector pensions. There is also, within that specific dispute, a detail that is often lost in reporting, which is the distinction between reforms set out in the report by Lord Hutton, subsequently watered down in negotiations, and changes introduced in last autumn's spending review. The Hutton proposals are the basis of the deal that has been offered to -- and rejected by -- unions. But many public sector workers are just as aggrieved by a mandatory surcharge on their employee pension contributions averaging 3.2 per cent that was in the small print of the spending review. That was seen by many as a pre-emptive attack on pensions rushed through before negotiations on a long-term settlement even got under way.

Labour is keen to emphasise the surcharge for precisely that reason. It was imposed by the Treasury without discussion and looks and feels like a smash-and-grab raid. There is some disappointment at the top of the party that unions have not pushed this point further. But privately unions say they see no point going after the 3 per cent charge as they know this is a battle they cannot win. They are right. I was told recently by a cabinet minister with good knowledge of the pension negotiations with unions that the surcharge is non-negotiable. It isn't even on the table. That is precisely because it is contained in the spending review. That document has acquired hallowed status in the government - it is the agreement on which the coalition's whole commitment to fiscal discipline is based. Ministers from both governing parties see it as the measure that, more than anything else, bought the country long-term respite from any pressure from financial markets that have punished other indebted governments in Europe. (Whether or not this is a real danger -- or was a danger in autumn last year -- is an entirely different point.) The fact is, whatever disputes might arise within the coalition, there is absolute agreement that the spending review is closed and must not be re-opened. It is the emblem of fiscal credibility.

There is also, I suspect, a certain psychological element in play here. Negotiating the spending review was an early test of the coalition's staying power. It came at a time when many people still thought it implausible that Lib Dems and Tories could realistically stay in government together for long. The fact that it happened at all has created a certain esprit de corps in the quad - the coalition steering committee of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander. They all know that revisiting the spending review would sabotage the political solidarity that is the glue holding the coalition together.

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

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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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