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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What the tragic case of Charlie Gard tells us about the modern world

People now believe medical science can perform miracles, and many search for them online.

If Charlie Gard had been born 40 years ago, there would have been no doubt about what would, and should, happen. Doctors treating a baby with a rare genetic condition that causes the body’s organs to shut down would have told his parents “nothing more can be done for him”. Charlie – deaf, epileptic, his muscles wasted, his brain probably damaged – would have died peacefully and unremarked. If an experimental US treatment had given such children an estimated 10 per cent chance of survival, his parents would not have known about it. Even if they had, they would have sorrowfully deferred to British doctors.

Now people believe that medical science can perform miracles and, through the internet, search the world for them. Yet they do not trust the knowledge and judgement of the medical profession. They rally public support and engage lawyers to challenge the doctors, as Charlie’s parents unsuccessfully did in the hope of being allowed to take their child for experimental treatment in America, despite warnings that it would be ineffective and distressing for him. This is a strange situation, the result of medical progress, social media, globalisation and the decline of deference. It causes much heartache to everybody involved but, like Charlie’s death, it is probably unavoidable.

Mogg days

A few weeks ago, Jacob Rees-Mogg was a 50-1 outsider for the Tory leadership. Now, as I write, he is third or fourth favourite, quoted by the bookmakers at between 6-1 and 10-1. For a few days, he was the second favourite, ahead of both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond and behind only David Davis, the clear front-runner. Perhaps Davis organised rich friends – of which I am sure he has a few – to flood the market with bets on Rees-Mogg to frighten Tory MPs into rallying behind him.

But do not write off the man dubbed “the honourable member for the early 20th century” – generously, in my view, since he looks and behaves as though he has stepped off an 18th-century country estate and he actually lives on a 17th-century one. Rees-Mogg, a hard Brexiteer, would be an appropriate leader if we left the EU with no deal. Having excused ourselves from the world’s largest and most cohesive trading bloc, our best prospect for earning our living would be as a giant 18th-century theme park. Who better than Rees-Mogg to front it?

The royal revenue stream

Princess Diana is the gift that keeps on giving. TV companies produce documentaries on the anniversaries of her death and marriage. New tapes, photos and letters are unearthed. Anyone who cut her hair, cleaned her windows or sold her a frock can make a bob or two from “my memories of Diana”. Most important, Diana guarantees the future of the royal family for at least another half-century. In an ITV documentary, Prince William spoke movingly and sincerely (as did his brother, Harry) about losing a mother. Even the most hard-hearted republicans must now hesitate to deprive him also of a throne.

Strictly newsreading

I am a BBC fan. I regard the requirement, imposed by the Tories, that the corporation publishes the names and salary bands of employees paid more than £150,000 a year as an attempt to exploit “the politics of envy” of which Labour is normally accused. But I wonder if the corporation could help itself by offering even more transparency than the government demands.

It could, for example, explain exactly why Gary Lineker (£1.75m-£1.79m), Jeremy Vine (£700,000-£749,999) and Huw Edwards (£550,000-£599,999) are so handsomely paid. Do they possess skills, esoteric knowledge or magnetic attraction to viewers and listeners unavailable to other mortals and particularly to their women colleagues who are apparently unworthy of such lavish remuneration? Were they wooed by rival broadcasters? If so, which rivals and how much did they offer? Have BBC women received lower offers or no offers at all? The BBC could go further. It could invite a dozen unknowns to try doing the jobs of top presenters and commentators, turn the results into a programme, and invite viewers or listeners to decide if the novices should replace established names and, if so, at what salaries. We elect the people who make our laws and the couples who go into the final stages of Strictly Come Dancing. Why shouldn’t we elect our newsreaders and, come to that, Strictly’s presenters?

Mail order

A tabloid newspaper, founded in 1896 and now with its headquarters in Kensington High Street, west London, obsessed with the Islamist terror threat, convinced that it speaks for Middle England. An editor, in the chair for a quarter-of-a-century, who makes such liberal use of the C-word that his editorial conferences are known as “the vagina monologues” and whose voice is comparable to that of “a maddened bull elephant”. Sound familiar?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Splash!, a newly published satirical novel about a tabloid newspaper from the long-serving Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover. Now I have had early sight of The Beast, due out in September, also a satirical novel about a tabloid paper, written by Alexander Starritt who briefly worked on the Mail after leaving Oxford University. Like Glover, he pays homage to Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop, where the main characters worked for the Daily Beast, but there the similarities end. Glover has written what is essentially a defence of tabloid journalism. Starritt offers a fierce, blackly comic critique, though he cannot, in the end, quite avoid casting the editor Paul Dacre – sorry, Charles Brython – as a heroic, if monstrous, figure.

How many other journalists or ex-journalists are writing satirical novels about the Mail? And why the presumed public interest? Newspapers, with fewer readers than ever, are supposed to be dying. Fiction publishers seem to disagree. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue