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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue