What Fox's intervention means for the Budget

The former defence secretary has called for faster spending cuts, tax cuts, and a relaxation of work

In his first major political intervention since resigning as Defence Secretary last year, Liam Fox has called for tax cuts for businesses and a relaxation of labour laws.

Writing in the Financial Times, the Conservative MP warned that although George Osborne's deficit reduction plan has restored some credibility and allowed the government to "buy time", something must be done to encourage growth.

There are two key passages in his article. The first reignites last year's debate on workers' rights:

To restore Britain's competitiveness we must begin by deregulating the labour market. Political objections must be overridden. It is too difficult to hire and fire and too expensive to take on new employees. It is intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable while output and employment are clearly cyclical.

The second -- perhaps the most newsworthy, given that we are just a month away from the Budget on 21 March -- argues for deeper, faster spending cuts:

There is a strong argument for further public spending reductions, not to fund a faster reduction in the deficit, but to reduce taxes on employment. Although the coalition agreement may require the chancellor to raise personal tax allowances (which should be paid for with spending restraint not new taxes) he should use the proceeds of spending reductions to cut employers' national insurance contributions across the board. If that is deemed impossible, he should consider targeting such tax cuts on the employment of 16 to 24-year-olds, making them more attractive to employers.

In his attack on the left and his call for mroe cuts, Fox speaks on behalf of the right of the Tory Party, for whom he has long been seen as a leader. Indeed, during the scandal over his relationship with his friend Adam Werrity which eventually led to his resignation, it was speculated that David Cameron was reluctant to sack him because it was better to have him inside the cabinet than outside causing trouble. Both Osborne and Cameron have kept in touch with Fox since he left front-line politics. Over at ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie points out that in calling for faster cuts, Fox is in line with the party's grassroots.

His intervention does not just reflect the views of the Tory right; it is also a clarion call for them to fight their corner. Last year saw a battle between the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners over Steve Hilton's attempts to remove a range of workplace rights. A compromise was reached in November when the Lib Dems agreed to look at relaxing rules for small companies (with less than 10 employees) but the business department has yet to take action on this.

This battle for the Budget is in evidence today, as another former cabinet member, the Liberal Democrat David Laws, writes in the Guardian about the party's "ambition for fairer tax" -- namely their key policy of raising the personal allowance to £10,000.

Little money is available to fund this tax, meaning that Fox's attack on workers' rights is shrewd. In order to safeguard the cut for low and middle earners -- one of the few popular policies that voters associate with Nick Clegg -- the Lib Dems may be forced to make concessions in other areas, such as labour regulation.

What today's intervention shows above all else is the political challenge that Osborne faces in creating a Budget that will at once appease the right of his own party while not pushing his coalition partners to breaking point.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.