Will the Lib Dems cave in to Osborne over deeper cuts?

Ahead of the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor is considering even larger cuts in order to meet his debt target.

One of the biggest dilemmas facing George Osborne ahead of the Autumn Statement on 5 December is whether or not to abandon his pledge to have the national debt falling as as a percentage of GDP by 2015-16. Economic growth of just 0.6 per cent over the last two years has left the government on course to borrow around £190bn more than originally intended. In March, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that debt would fall from 76.3 per cent in 2014-15 to 76 per cent in 2015-16 (thus meeting Osborne's target), but the IMF has more recently predicted that it will rise from 78.8 per cent to 79.8 per cent.

With this in mind, the government briefed in September that it would abandon the target. The Times (£) reported that Osborne, with David Cameron's agreement, was "ready to take a political hit on missing the target rather than face the 'nightmare' of further cuts."

But better-than-expected growth and borrowing figures have prompted a rethink, with Osborne now considering whether he could still meet the target by announcing even deeper spending cuts. In today's Telegraph, Peter Oborne writes that the Chancellor "wants to stick to his original economic strategy – a position he outlined eloquently during his speech to the Conservative Party Conference." The biggest obstacle to him doing so is the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have repeatedly said that they will not accept a "penny more" off public spending (or "a penny less"). Osborne could have attempted to win his coalition partners round by offering them some form of wealth tax, but he has already ruled out a "mansion tax" and rejected Clegg's call for an emergency tax on the rich.

It remains to be seen how the stalemate will be broken. As Oborne writes, "Osborne has nowhere to hide. Either he must give in to the Lib Dems, or the Lib Dems must give in to him." Should the Lib Dems blink first, it would be one of their biggest betrayals yet.

Nick Clegg has said that he will not accept a "penny more" off public spending. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.