Osborne rules out further welfare cuts and tax rises as he targets Whitehall

The Chancellor reveals that he has already secured agreement from seven departments to cuts of up to 10 per cent and makes it clear that he's after more.

After reports at the weekend that he is struggling to secure agreement from cabinet ministers to any cuts in next month's Spending Review, George Osborne has taken the unusual step of touring the studios to reveal the progress he's made so far. On ITV's Daybreak, he announced that seven departments had "agreed provisionally" to cuts of up to 10 per cent, mentioning Justice, Energy and Communities by name (the others are reported to be the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury  and Northern Ireland). He later added on BBC News that this meant he was now "about 20 per cent of the way there"

Today's Telegraph reports that Iain Duncan Smith has offered to cut welfare by another £3bn in order to protect spending on defence and the police, but Osborne made it clear that with the Lib Dems opposed to any further welfare cuts, this was not an option. "We've already accepted big reductions in welfare, including big reductions for this year, now we've got to look for savings in Whitehall, in government, in bureaucracy," he said. And he made it clear that this would include further cuts to the Home Office and Defence, despite the public protestations of Philip Hammond and Theresa May. While Osborne emphasised that he was "not going to do things that are going to endanger the security of the country, either at home or abroad", he added, "that doesn't mean you can't find savings in the way these big departments operate." In addition to dampening Tory hopes of further cuts to welfare, Osborne also signalled that had no plans to introduce further tax rises on top of those announced in the Budget. "I am in effect ruling it out, I'm looking for the money from Whitehall", he said. 

Challenged on why he was having a Spending Review at all, when he might not be in government for the period in question (2015-16), Osborne pointed out that "the financial year starts before the general election" and also revealed his underlying political motive. The review, he said, would raise the "very interesting question" of whether Labour "would match these plans". Should Labour fail to do so, Osborne will accuse them, as the Tories did in 1992, of planning a "tax bombshell" or more of the borrowing "that got us into this mess in the first place". After the Chancellor's pre-Spending Review report this morning, that is a dilemma Ed Miliband and Ed Balls will soon to have to confront. 

George Osborne arrives at media company Unruly, on April 25, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.