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.

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.