My fantasy chancellor would announce a new path for fiscal policy

Autumn Statement wishlist.

Thinking ahead to the Autumn Statement, you can imagine a Balls/Cable alternative reality where the chancellor is a social democrat and Keynesian. Or you can consider what gentle nudging of the tiller the present incumbent might plausibly countenance.

The first option is a lot less gloomy.  With the economy and the public finances now totally at sea, my fantasy chancellor will announce a new path for fiscal policy. There would be a short-term stimulus, starting with a cut to employers’ national insurance and a massive public investment programme. Capital spending which guarantees a future revenue stream, such as house-building, would be ignored when it comes to plans for the national debt, meaning the government could promise a million new homes over five years.

There would still need to be very painful fiscal consolidation over the medium-term, but not on George Osborne’s terms. His plans assume that almost all the burden should be borne by spending cuts not tax rises, and his fiscal rules force him to squeeze the deficit faster and deeper than is likely to be needed for long-term sustainability. The result is a plan to permanently shrink the size of the state as a share of GDP.

A centre-left government would declare that its aim was to return public spending to its long-term trend not to ‘overshoot’. That would mean taking a bit longer to cut the deficit and raising more taxes, especially from wealth and land. There would still be very difficult and controversial decisions because even a decade of flat spending would mean many individual cuts. A Fabian Society commission has just launched to consider how the tricky trade-offs could be made.

But what of the real Mr Osborne? His reputation depends on him rejecting almost everything I have said. He knows however the Liberal Democrats will demand he finds more ways to tax high-earners, even if it is simply by adding a few bands to the council tax. He could also accelerate the capitalisation of his two putative public investment banks. On specific spending cuts, he should desist from a fresh assault on his ‘undeserving’ shirkers, for although the focus groups tell him it’s good politics, over time he reinforces the ‘nasty party’ image the Tories must shed to win centre-ground votes. Perhaps, on cuts, Osborne should simply pause and take stock; after all, does he really need to set a budget for April 2015 this week?

Andrew Harrop is the General Secretary of Fabian Society

The government could promise a million new homes over five years. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.