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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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