Balls sharpens his axe: where Labour would cut in 2015

Free schools, Police and Crime Commissioners, Titan prisons and army admirals are targeted for cuts.

There were two main aims of Ed Balls's speech on the economy today. The first was to reassure voters that while continuing to support stimulus now, Labour would pursue fiscal responsibility in office. While refusing to play George Osborne's game by saying whether he would stick to the coalition's 2015-16 spending plans ("when we do not know the economic circumstances two months ahead, let alone two years"), he emphasised that, before the election, Labour would adopt its own fiscal rules to eliminate the current deficit and reduce the national debt as share of GDP. Balls also signalled that, with growth finally returning, he would soon abandon his expensive pledge to introduce a temporary VAT cut (which Ed Miliband had such trouble defending in his infamous World At One interview) in favour of long-term capital investment. He said: 

Today, with growth prospects still very uncertain and interest rates too low to be of use, a temporary VAT cut now is still the right prescription before extra capital spending can come on stream – although any immediate tax cut which helps middle and lower income families is better than nothing. 

But over the coming year if, as we all hope, some kind of recovery does take hold, then the balance of advantage will shift from temporary tax cuts to long-term capital investment.

The second aim was to begin the task of forcing the left to accept that not only will Labour be unable to reverse most of the cuts imposed by the coalition, it will have to make its own. As Balls pointedly noted, "The next Labour government will have to plan on the basis of falling departmental spending."

The announcement that Labour would remove the winter fuel allowance from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners is pretty small beer. While Ed Miliband's abandonment of universalism is politically significant (it opens the door to further benefit cuts), the move will save just £100m a year (less than half a per cent of the £207bn welfare bill), meaning that it barely qualifies as a rounding error. But Balls went on to outline, in greater detail than before, other, larger cuts and efficiency savings that a Labour government would seek to make. Since the shadow chancellor wants to give himself maximum flexibility in 2015, they were proposed in the form of questions (as was the winter fuel allowance cut) but, for now, they are the best guide we have to where Balls's axe would fall. Here's my summary:

- Not opening new free schools in areas with excess places. Balls derided "vanity schools projects" and suggested that Labour would not open new free schools in areas with a surplus of secondary school places. ("With primary school places in short supply in many parts of the country, and parents struggling to get their children into a local school, can it really be a priority to open more free schools in 2015 and 2016 in areas with excess secondary school places?")

- Scrapping Police and Crime Commissioners. ("When we are losing thousands of police officers and police staff, how have we ended up spending more on police commissioners than the old police authorities, with more elections currently timetabled for 2016?")

- Cancelling the new 2,000-place "Titan" prison recently proposed by Chris Grayling. ("Has the Ministry of Justice properly made the case for a major new 'Titan' prison, at a time when the prison population is falling?")

- Abolishing High Speed Two Limited, the company developing the new rail network. Balls suggested that this role could be performed more effectively by Network Rail ("Should we be spending millions on a separate company to deliver High Speed 2 when we already have Network Rail, which after all is responsible for rail infrastructure?")

- Cutting the number of army officers and admirals. ("Do we need more admirals than ships and more officers in our forces than our international counterparts at a time when frontline armed forces are under pressure?")

- Merging the four separate government motorist agencies. ("Do we really need four separate government agencies delivering services to motorists?")

- Combining management functions. in government departments, agencies, fire services and police forces. ("Does it really make sense to have separate costly management and bureaucracy for so many separate government departments, agencies, fire services and police forces - the same number as when this Government came into office - all with separate leadership structures and separate specialist teams?")

- Requiring industries to contribute more to the cost of regulation. ("Should industries pay a greater share of the costs of their regulators?")

The aim of these cuts and savings will be to free up funds for Labour's priorities (which Balls promised a "relentless focus" on): employment, housing, childcare, the NHS and social care. Based on his speech today, it is likely that Labour will go into the election promising to spend more than Tories in areas such as infrastructure (borrowing to invest), while giving itself the political cover to do so by adopting new fiscal rules, independently monitored by the OBR, and promising to control welfare spending (Miliband will announce his support for a cap on structural benefits, such as housing benefit, in his speech on welfare on Thursday). The defining political question is whether this will be enough to reassure a sceptical electorate, less than a third of whom believe Labour can be trusted to manage the nation's public finances, that it wouldn't "crash the car" all over again.

Ed Balls emphasised that Labour would have to plan "on the basis of falling departmental spending". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories