Hammond, Cable and May: the ministers who could resign over cuts

If Osborne refuses to give way in the Spending Review, cabinet ministers may choose to walk out.

When the coalition was formed in 2010, debate quickly began about who would be the first cabinet minister to resign over government policy, with the answer usually involving Vince Cable and spending cuts.

In the event, while there's been no shortage of resignations, not one has been over a point of principle. To refresh, David Laws resigned as chief secretary to the Treasury on 29 May 2010 after claiming expenses to pay rent to his partner, Liam Fox resigned as defence secretary on 14 October 2011 after  his lobbyist friend Adam Werritty was revealed to have joined him on official overseas trips, Chris Huhne resigned as energy and climate change secretary on 3 February 2012 after he was charged with perverting the course of justice by allowing Vicky Pryce to claim speeding points on his behalf, Andrew Mitchell resigned as chief whip on 19 October 2012 after allegedly calling the police "fucking plebs" and Tom Strathclyde resigned as leader of the House of Lords on 7 January 2013 to return to his business career.

But with government unity fraying over the Spending Review, it's worth asking whether we could soon see the first principled resignation. When George Osborne announced yesterday that seven departments had agreed "in principle" to cuts of up to 10 per cent, he simultaneously revealed those that had not, including Defence (Philip Hammond), the Home Office (Theresa May) and Business (Vince Cable). While Osborne now intends to revive the government's "star chamber" to coerce uncooperative ministers into accepting cuts, Hammond made it clear on the Today programme this morning that he was prepared to do battle with the Treasury: 

We should be very clear that there is a difference between efficiency savings, which may be difficult to achieve but are painless in terms of the impact on the front line, and output cuts, which are of a very different order and require proper and mature consideration across government about the impact that they will have on our military capabilities.

Should Osborne nevertheless demand more than mere "efficiency savings", it is no longer unthinkable that the hitherto loyal Hammond could walk out. After his recent interventions over welfare spending (cut it, rather than defence), the EU (he would vote to leave were a referendum held today) and gay marriage (wrong and a waste of government time), speculation has been growing among Tory MPs that Hammond could quit and set himself up as the leader of the traditionalist right. While Hammond's allies dismissed the suggestion as "ridiculous", the possibility of such a resignation increases as the election draws closer. If it looks as if the Tories will lose, the temptation for ministers to quit and position themselves for the leadership election to come could prove irresistible.

Another minister to watch, as ever, is Vince Cable, who has been lobbying hard for his department to be protected on economic grounds and has warned that "further significant cuts will do enormous damage to the things that really do matter like science, skills, innovation and universities" (he even suggested at one point that the Spending Review be abandoned) . If Osborne refuses to give way, Cable could well choose this moment to use his "nuclear option". 

Finally, there's Theresa May, who argued at the weekend that the budget of the counter-terrorism police should be fully protected, as it was in the 2010 Spending Review. She said:

I'm absolutely clear that we need to ensure that the intelligence services and, indeed, in policing CT (counter-terrorism policing)  … in the last spending review we ensured that CT policing was not treated the same as overall policing and I see every reason to take that same view in the next spending review.

Osborne said yesterday that he was "not going to do anything which is going to endanger the security of this country at home or abroad" but David Cameron's spokesman later refused to confirm that this amounted to a guarantee that the anti-terror budget would be shielded from cuts. Should this area fail to escape Osborne's axe, May, who, like Hammond, has been positioning herself for the post-Cameron era, could also choose to walk. 

Vince Cable has warned that "further significant cuts" to skills, science and universities would do "enormous damage". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.