Three things to bear in mind when watching Osborne today

Why everyone’s pretty much making it up.

1. Most of today’s cuts were decided three years ago In his statement today, the Chancellor needs to find cuts in most unprotected departments of around 8-9 per cent. That number flows mainly from three things: the pace of deficit reduction; the decision to protect health, schools, international development and pensioners; and forecasts for so-called Annually Managed Expenditure (AME). All three are either old news or else significantly beyond Osborne’s direct control. That’s not to say that today’s decisions don’t matter. Some departments will get more or less than 8-9 per cent—if briefings are right, local government will lose 10 per cent, meaning fewer cuts elsewhere. But these are relatively small movements around a big number that flows from existing plans.

2. Today’s cuts will hurt but things are set to get tougher The Chancellor will be pleased at the lack of blood on Whitehall carpets today. Tough settlements have been reached and coalition relationships have held up well. Even with no extra benefit cuts being announced in his statement, Osborne has also succeeded in baking in a tough settlement on welfare.

Yet the cuts needed to finish the job in 2016-17 and 2017-18 will mean much tougher battles. This is partly a question of scale. The Chancellor needs a further £13bn in both 2016-17 and 2017-18 on top of today’s cuts in order to meet his deficit targets. Without further tax rises or welfare cuts, that means speeding up departmental cuts by around 50 per cent after the election. Even keeping departmental cuts to their current pace would require £10bn of further tax rises or welfare cuts. But the battles will also get tougher for the simple reason that every fresh pound of cuts will be harder than the last. As things stand, 2016-17 and 2017-18 could leave departments like Defence and the Home Office a third smaller than they were in 2010. The last mile will be the hardest.

3. Everyone’s pretty much making it up Having said all of this, the most important thing today is to treat everything you hear with a big dose of scepticism. The level of uncertainty surrounding the Chancellor’s strategy is enormous. This is because the main figure guiding the cuts is the pledge to eliminate the structural deficit, the part of the deficit that won’t go away when the economy’s running at full capacity. Needless to say, that’s an incredibly hard thing to know. Far from being an academic point, these estimates about the size of the so-called ‘output gap’ change everything. Last year, two plausible estimates suggested that the Chancellor either needed to make £22bn of extra cuts by 2017-18 or else needed to make £35bn fewer cuts than planned. That’s a difference of £57bn. Bear it in mind when you hear confident statements today for or against £11.5bn of new cuts.

George Osborne during a visit to a branch of Lloyds TSB bank on June 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Plunkett is director of policy and development at the Resolution Foundation

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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.