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.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left