Vince Cable and Liam Fox unite on need for NHS cuts

An unlikely political alliance is formed as both men argue that health spending should not be protected while other services are cut.

Liam Fox might be one of the Tory supply-siders whom Vince Cable has accused of waging "jihad" against public services but could the pair be about to form an unlikely alliance? Both have today called for the government to cut spending on the NHS in order to free up funds for use elsewhere. 

In a speech this morning at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Fox will call for George Osborne to end the ring-fencing of the NHS, schools and international development and to use the money saved to dramatically reduce taxes, including the temporary abolition of capital gains tax, and to limit cuts to areas such as defence. 

Asked on the Today programme whether he agreed with Fox's stance on ring-fencing, Cable said that while there was "an argument for protecting key priorities" such as the overseas aid and science budgets, ring-fencing was not "a very sensible" long-term approach. When pressed by John Humphrys, he notably refused to say that the government should continue to protect the NHS, implying that it could be targeted for cuts (one wonders if the Tories will take the chance to demonstrate their "commitment" to the health service by slapping him down). 

With an eye to the current divisions over this summer's Spending Review, Cable said: "The problem about ring-fencing as an overall approach to policy, is that when you have 80 per cent of all government spending that’s ring-fenced, it means all future pressures then come on things like the army, the police, local government, skills and universities, the rest that I’m responsible for. So you get a very unbalanced approach to public spending."

It's worth noting that the Business Secretary is a long-standing critic of ring-fencing. At the last general election, the Liberal Democrats, unlike the Conservatives, argued that no area of public spending should spared from cuts. As Cable told the 2010 Lib Dem spring conference, "There can be no ring-fencing if we are serious about getting the public finances back on track". 

For now, there is little prospect of George Osborne following Cable and Fox's advice. Aware that no area of public spending is more popular with voters, Osborne and Cameron rightly believe that it would be politically toxic for the Tories to cut the NHS. In addition, the above-average rate of inflation in the health service means that there is a strong case for ensuring that its budget remains, at the very least, flat in real-terms. But as Osborne continues to struggle to extract cuts from the "National Union of Ministers", the debate on ring-fencing is unlikely to go away. 

Business Secretary Vince Cable arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.