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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.