Has Danny Alexander really been boycotting Starbucks?

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury's mixed messages on the tax avoiding chain.

Danny Alexander attempted to burnish his radical credentials yesterday when he revealed that he had been boycotting Starbucks. After the chain promised to review its UK tax arrangements, he said: "I might be able to buy a coffee from Starbucks again soon".

But asked by John Humphrys on the Today programme this morning whether he had been boycotting Starbucks, Amazon and Google, all of whom have been accused by the Commons public accounts committee of "paying little or no corporation tax", Alexander offered a notably different response. "I’m a tea drinker, so I don't tend to go to Starbucks or other such places," he said, adding: "I do use Amazon from time to time, or I have." So was the "tea drinker" ever going to Starbucks to begin with?

But regardless of his spending habits, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Alexander can and should be doing more to prevent corporate tax avoidance. He boasted today that the £154m of funding announced by George Osborne would give "HMRC the resources they say they need to do this." But what he didn't say is that the extra funding will barely begin to compensate for the £2bn of cuts Osborne has made to HMRC and the 10,000 staff due to be laid off. A report earlier this year by the public accounts committee found that job cuts among revenue officials meant the government collected £1.1bn less in tax than it would otherwise have done. "We are not convinced that the decision to reduce staff numbers working in this area in the past represented value for money for the taxpayer," it said.

Asked by Humphrys whether she had been boycotting the unholy trinity, Labour MP and public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge said that she was avoiding Starbucks and no longer used Amazon. "I’m a Kindle fanatic, so that’s a difficult one," she said. "Google I find more difficult." It says much about Google and Amazon's dominance of their respective sectors that even the indefatigable Hodge struggles to avoid them.

Police form a line outside a Starbucks coffee shop as demonstrators participate in a protest against the government's spending cuts. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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George Osborne's double U-turn allows him to change while remaining the same

The Chancellor abandoned cuts to tax credits and the police but stuck to his target of a £10bn budget surplus. 

The U-turn is an underrated manoeuvre in politics. At a stroke, it reduces opponents to complaining that the government has done what they told it to do. As long as the U-turn is in the right direction, the voters, who pay little attention to such matters, are usually content.

The best climbdowns are often the fullest. In his Autumn Statement and Spending Review, George Osborne proved this not once but twice. As so often, the Treasury briefings that the Chancellor would merely provide "transitional" support for tax credit claimants were designed to lead reporters off the scent. Rather than modifying the cuts to in-work benefits, Osborne abandoned them entirely. In the face of the formidable coalition of Boris Johnson (his chief leadership rival), Tory backbenchers, the Sun, the work and pensions select committee, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Adam Smith Institute, he capitulated.

He does so at the cost of breaching his self-imposed welfare cap for three years. But this will only have the effect of amplifying his generosity. In fact, the cuts have merely been deferred (till 2020 as tax credits are absorbed by Universal Credit), rather than abandoned. But today at least, the Chancellor has got the headlines he wanted. 

After the Paris attacks, another formidable coalition of interests had inveighed against police cuts. And again, Osborne met their demands in full. Having suggested as recently as last weekend that there would be signifcant cuts (another bluff), he revealed in his peroration that there would be none at all. "The police protect us, and we’re going to protect the police," he declared. Just as his tax credits U-turn shielded him from one leadership challenger (Boris), so this move shielded him from another (Home Secretary Theresa May). The Foreign Office budget, he also announced would be protected in real-terms, joining health, international development and defence behind the ring-fence. 

The skill of Osborne's statement was to change while remaining the same. Against expectations, he announced that his promised budget surplus in 2020 had not fallen but risen to £10.1bn (up £0.1bn). Gross tax increases of £28.5bn, including the new apprenticeship levy (£11.6bn), higher council tax (£6.2bn) and higher stamp duty for second homes and buy-to-let purchases (£3.8bn), as well as lower debt interest payments mean that he is still forecast to eliminate the deficit (albeit years later than originally promised). Staring intently at John McDonnell, he vowed that the Tories would "fix the roof while the sun is shining" (the shadow chancellor having told me that he would "throw up" if he heard the line again). 

But Osborne's decision to avoid the most hazardous cuts should not distract from those that remain. The average cut to unprotected departments, including transport, business and communities and local government - is 19 per cent. After the reductions in the last parliament, any fat has largely been eliminated. The Chancellor will be cutting into bone. If past experience is any guide, today's U-turns will not be his last. But as history also shows, that may not be to his cost. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.