Cable and Hammond fight on as Osborne swings his axe again

Six more departments agree to cuts but Defence, Business, Education, Work and Pensions and Transport are yet to settle.

George Osborne's unusual running commentary on the Spending Review continues. In addition to the seven departments previously named as agreeing to cuts of "up to" 10 per cent, the Treasury has announced that Osborne has reached settlements with the Home Office (with counter-terrorism policing protected), DEFRA, DCMS, the Scotland Office, the Wales Office and the Law Officers Department (incorporating the Crown Prosecution Service, the Treasury Solicitor's Department and the Serious Fraud Office), all of which will be cut by an average of 8 per cent. The seven to settle last month were Justice, Energy, Communities, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office.

But while the majority of departments have now agreed to further cuts, the absence of some of the biggest spenders from the list (Education and the DWP, as well as Transport and Business) means that, with just 12 days to go, the Treasury still has less than a third (£3.6bn) of the £11.5bn of cuts sought by Osborne. 

Health, International Development and the schools section of the Education budget are all officially protected but the rest still face the Chancellor's axe. Although Theresa May, one of the ring-leaders of the famed National Union of Ministers (NUM) has settled, Vince Cable (Business) and Philip Hammond (Defence) are fighting on. After the head of the army Sir Peter Wall warned that further cuts could damage the force's "professional competence" and "become quite dangerous, quite quickly", the latter is under particular pressure to prevent significant reductions. But Alexander made it clear that he was in no mood to offer special treatment. "In a department where there are more horses than tanks there is room for efficiency savings," he told Sky News. As for Cable, he has previously warned that "further significant cuts will do enormous damage to the things that really do matter like science, skills, innovation and universities", a message that was echoed by the CBI in its Spending Review submission this week. It suggested that £700m of medical research funding currently paid for by the Business Department could be transferred to Health, a move that would break the spirit, if not the letter, of the NHS ring-fence. 

Alexander also signalled that while there would be no further welfare cuts (after £3.6bn were announced in last year's Autumn Statement), this did not mean the Department for Work and Pensions was protected. He pointed out that welfare spending is classified as "annually managed expenditure", rather than departmental spending, adding that "there are lots of areas where the DWP has the capacity to make savings". 

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond stands in front of a Rapier System ground-to-air missile launcher during a visit to RAF Waddington near Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.