The Tories cynically veto Balls's plan to allow the OBR to audit Labour's manifesto

Osborne is determined to claim that there is a "black hole" in Labour's spending plans, whatever the Office for Budget Responsibility may say.

One of the biggest obstacles to a Labour victory at the next election remains the lack of economic trust in the party. Three years after David Cameron and George Osborne entered office, it is still blamed more for the spending cuts than the coalition (owing to "the mess" it left in 2010) and viewed as fiscally irresponsible. With Labour likely to pledge to invest significantly more than the coalition in housing and other infrastructure projects (while abiding by George Osborne's day-to-day spending totals), it is politically vital to shift this perception.

That is the task that Ed Balls has set himself for his speech today in which he will announce that he has asked the Office for Budget Responsibility to audit every tax and spending pledge in Labour's election manifesto. Balls will say:

In tough times it's even more important that all our policies and commitments are properly costed and funded.

The British people rightly want to know that the sums add up. So we will go one step further and ask the independent Office for Budget Responsibility – the watchdog set up by this government – to independently audit the costings of every individual spending and tax measure in Labour's manifesto at the next election.

This is the first time a Shadow Chancellor - the first time any political party in Britain - has ever said it wants this kind of independent audit. A radical change from what's gone before, but the right thing to do to help restore trust in politics.

It's a smart move that provides Ed Miliband with some political cover ahead of his speech tomorrow, which is likely to include major spending commitments on housing. But, crucially, Balls's plan would require an extension of the OBR's remit, which does not currently allow it to scrutinise the opposition's fiscal policies. Any change to this would require the approval of parliament, with number-cruncher-in-chief Robert Chote emphasising that a "cross-party consensus" is "highly desirable".

But just 17 minutes after Balls's announcement, the Tories put paid to any hope of securing one, with Sajid Javid, the increasingly prominent Economic Secretary to the Treasury, declaring:

Ed Balls knows this is not allowed under the Budget Responsibility Act and the OBR's charter, so this is just a stunt to try and distract attention from the fact that Labour have been found out for making unfunded commitments that would just mean more borrowing and more debt.

Nothing has changed - it's the same old Labour. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls still want more spending, more borrowing, and more debt - exactly how they got us into this mess in the first place. And it's hardworking people who would pay the price through higher taxes and higher mortgage rate.

The Tories' decision to torpedo Balls's plan is entirely politically motivated. There is no reason in principle why they should refuse to allow the watchdog founded by Osborne in 2010 to audit Labour's policies. But there are plenty of political ones. The Tories are understandably reluctant to allow Labour to enhance its fiscal credibility and to repeal claims of a "black hole" in its plans.

Tonight, Balls's SpAd Alex Belardinelli has rightly responded by asking how the Tories intend to justify their opposition to the proposal.

It will be worth watching to see how Osborne's team respond when independent figures, dedicated to encouraging evidence-based policy, deplore their cynicism.

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle