New shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour sends Cameron another warning over HS2

New shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh echoes Ed Balls's argument that the £50bn for the project could potentially be better spent elsewhere.

Labour aides were keen to emphasise yesterday that the departure of Maria Eagle, a committed supporter of High Speed 2, as shadow transport secretary did not signal any change in the party's position on the project. But it's worth flagging up the first statement from her replacement Mary Creagh

After the Treasury select committee warned that there were "serious shortcomings" in the economic case for HS2 and called for the project to be suspended until they had been addressed, Creagh said: 

Labour supports the idea of a new North-South rail link, but under this Government HS2 has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50 billion.

David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear they will go full steam ahead with this project whatever the cost. Labour will not take this irresponsible approach. There will be no blank cheque for this project or for any project, because we need to ensure it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.

The significance of this response is that Creagh has echoed Ed Balls's argument that the funds for the project could potentially be better spent elsewhere. When Balls first made those remarks in his speech to the Labour conference ("the question is – not just whether a new high-speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country"), some in the party suggested that he had overstepped the mark (with Maria Eagle doing her best to distance herself from Balls in her speech), but his words have now been adopted as party policy. 

For Balls, the main attraction of a U-turn on HS2 is that would allow Labour to outspend the Tories in politically vital areas ("building new homes or new schools or new hospitals") while remaining within George Osborne's fiscal envelope. Unless the coalition can significantly reduce the projected cost of the project (as Andrew Adonis has urged it to do), it does now seem a question of when, not if, Labour withdraws its support. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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