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.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader. Getty
Show Hide image

Will Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn become Prime Minister after the 2017 general election?

Can Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn win the 2017 general election? 

Jeremy Corbyn could be the next prime minister. Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely. After less than two years as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn is leading the party into a snap general election. Labour behind in the latest general election polls and underperformed badly in the recent local elections. But since the election was called, Labour’s position in the polls has been improving. Can we trust the general election polls?

This isn’t the first vote of national significance since his election, however, since he was in office during the 2016 EU referendum. It’s also not Corbyn’s first serious challenge: after the Brexit vote, his MPs voted “no confidence” in him and Owen Smith challenged him for the leadership. Corbyn saw off that threat to his position convincingly, so can he pull out another electoral triumph and become prime minister? 

Can Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister after the general election 2017?

Do the polls predict a Labour victory?

Since May 2015, the Conservative Party has consistently led in the polls. The latest polls give Labour ratings in the mid 30s, while the Conservatives are on the mid-40s. Recent improvements in Labour’s standing still leave Jeremy Corbyn a long way from becoming prime minister.

But should we believe the general election polls? Glen O’Hara, professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University, points out that the polls have been wrong before, and could be overstating Labour’s collapse. However, a 20-point gap is far outside the margin of error. A Corbyn win would be an unprecedented upset.

What is Labour's record on elections?

At the 2016 local elections, Labour did not gain any councils and lost 18 seats and 4 per cent of the vote. James Schneider, the co-founder of Momentum who is now Corbyn’s head of strategic communications, said this showed Labour was on the right trajectory, but it’s a disappointment for an opposition to make no gains. And at the Copeland by-election this February, Labour lost the seat to the Tories – the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Can Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister? The verdict

Jeremy Corbyn’s path to power would be one of the greatest surprises in British politics. But unlikely doesn’t mean impossible. It would take some extraordinary events, but it could happen. Check out the latest odds to see how the markets rate his chances.

0800 7318496