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 web editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.