Why is the Spending Review being held now? So Osborne can try and beat up Ed Balls

The Chancellor's decision to set out plans for 2015-16 nearly two years in advance has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with economics.

One question that has been asked all too rarely in coverage of the Spending Review is "why it is being held now?" There is no constitutional or economic requirement for George Osborne to set out spending plans for 2015-16 this far in advance. The current spending period (2011-15) doesn't end until April 2015 and it would have been prudent to wait until the preceding October (as in the case of the previous two reviews) when more recent forecasts will have been produced. 

Osborne's decision not to do so has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with economics. By announcing spending limits for the first year after the election, the Conservatives’' chief political strategist is seeking to draw the battlelines in his party's favour. He knows that if Labour accepts his plans it will be accused of intellectual surrender and that if it rejects them it will be accused of fiscal recklessness.

As apprentices of Gordon Brown, who similarly used the baseline as a weapon of political war, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were well prepared for this trap. Their pre-emptive response was to accept Osborne's current spending limits, while leaving open the possibility of greater capital investment. For both political and economic reasons, it was the right decision. While the public remain sceptical of the Keynesian case for higher borrowing, polls show that they recognise the benefits of investing in areas such as housing, which boost output in the short and long run, generate employment and ultimately aid deficit reduction. With its own currency, its own independent monetary policy and its above average debt maturity, Britain can afford to borrow for growth without fear of a dangerous rise in bond yields. The risks of inaction, in the form of permanently lower growth and higher unemployment, far outweigh the risks of action.
 
Nearly two years before the end of the current spending period, Osborne's relentless focus should have been on generating growth (as ConservativeHome's Mark Wallace also argues this morning), not on squeezing £11.5bn of cuts out of ministers who may not even be around to implement them. But ever since he entered office, the Chancellor has rarely been able to resist the temptation to put politics before economics. Forget growth, forget jobs, forget deficit reduction even, Osborne has got an election to win and he thinks beating up Ed Balls will help. Your fate, dear voter, is the last thing on his mind today. 
George Osborne walks along The Strand towards a branch of Lloyds bank. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.