George Osborne settles defence budget ahead of Spending Review

A deal was done between the Chancellor and the Defence Secretary to settle the Ministry of Defence's budget for 2015-16 late on Saturday night.

The Ministry of Defence budget for 2015-16 has been agreed ahead of the Spending Review, George Osborne has said.

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, he told stand-in presenter Sophie Raworth that the deal was done "last night" and defended how close to the wire these decisions are being made, saying that "in the past these things were often done the night before the spending round." To stick to his own economic plan, the Chancellor must announce £11.5bn of Whitehall cuts to Parliament on Wednesday.

The cuts agreed to by the MoD will result in the civilian headcount being reduced while the armed forces remain at the same level, BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson reported. Osborne has also said that the fines from the Libor bank interest rate-fixing scandal will go to schemes to benefit war veterans and their families.

Further complications became apparent this morning as seven former defence chiefs published a letter in the Observer, calling on the Prime Minister to resist pressure from the MoD to allow the military to dip into the aid budget to make up shortfalls elsewhere. They describe the ring-fenced aid budget as "critical to the UK's national interests".

Agreeing the cuts to the defence budget was a major hurdle for the Treasury to clear ahead of the Spending Review - as my colleague George Eaton wrote back in February, the idea that the MoD must find cuts while the aid budget remains ringfenced was a difficult pill to swallow for many Conservative MPs.

However, defence is not the last department to settle - Vince Cable's Department of Business, Innovation and Skills is still holding out. On the Marr Show, Osborne claimed that he and Cable were still "arguing about the small details" but denied that there was a "massive argument" going on with his Lib Dem cabinet colleague.

That isn't quite the story coming out of the Cable camp, however - the Observer reports today that the Business Secretary was in "no mood to back down in a dispute he regards as crucial to the government's economic credibility". The problem, it is suggested, is that the differences between Vince Cable and the Treasury run deeper than just quibbles over a few numbers here or there. Cable insists the coalition needs "a strong story to tell on growth" as well as emphasis on the necessity to cut. In accordance with this, he is reportedly pushing for investment in science, skills and training.

This is not a new direction for Cable. In an essay for the New Statesman in March 2013 entitled "When the facts change, should I change my mind?", he set out his hesitations with the coalition's economic policy, particularly in the area of growth and capital spending. He wrote:

The more controversial question is whether the government should not switch but should borrow more, at current very low interest rates, in order to finance more capital spending: building of schools and colleges; small road and rail projects; more prudential borrowing by councils for housebuilding.

Osborne is expected to put some emphasis on infrastructure spending in Wednesday's Spending Review, but Cable seems to be holding out for specific investment for his own department.

Exactly when, and how, Cable and Osborne will be able to resolve what appear to be fundamental intellectual differences, remains to be seen.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.