The Lib Dems' pledge to protect the NHS from cuts is another snub to Cable

The Business Secretary has long warned that ring-fencing some departments from cuts is not "a very sensible" approach.

By far the most significant policy announcement made by the Lib Dems at their conference is that the party will pledge to protect the NHS and schools from cuts after 2015. Nick Clegg suggested yesterday that both budgets should be ring-fenced until 2020 and Danny Alexander told the Today programme this morning:

We’ve said that we want to, as a party, maintain the commitments to the NHS in terms of keeping its budget protected in real terms, and also to the schools system.

Among other things, this is another snub to Vince Cable, a long-standing critic of ring-fencing. Before the recent Spending Review, he warned that shielding some departments from cuts and forcing others to endure even greater austerity was not "a very sensible" long-term approach. He said:

The problem about ring-fencing as an overall approach to policy, is that when you have 80 per cent of all government spending that’s ring-fenced, it means all future pressures then come on things like the army, the police, local government, skills and universities, the rest that I’m responsible for. So you get a very unbalanced approach to public spending.

But as in the case of Help To Buy and the future of the coalition, Clegg and Alexander have chosen to disregard Cable's advice.

It's also worth noting that the Lib Dems' pledge means that all three of the main parties are now likely to go into the next election promising to ring-fence the NHS. David Cameron and George Osborne havee long made it clear that they want to continue to protect the health budget ater 2015 and Ed Miliband told the BBC earlier this year: "We're not going to be cutting the health service, I'm very clear about that. We will always be protecting the health service and will always make it a priority."

Promising to shield the NHS from cuts is both good politics and good policy. Polls show that it is the most popular spending area with voters and the above-average rate of inflation in the health service means it frequently requires real-terms rises just to stand still. But it does mean all parties will be under greater pressure to say how they would continue deficit reduction without significant tax rises. Should the ring-fences around health, international development and schools spending remain, some departments will have had their budgets more than halved by the end of the programme, with a 64% cut to the Foreign Office, a 46% cut to the Home Office and a 36% cut to defence.

Protesters from the National Health Action Party lead a mock funeral procession for the NHS along Whitehall on July 5, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

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