Cameron's declaration that the cuts are permanent reveals the Tories' true agenda

The PM's vision of a permanently "leaner" state is a grim prospect for those reliant on public services and the welfare state to maintain an adequate standard of living.

When he entered office in 2010, committed to the largest programme of public service cuts since 1945, David Cameron exerted much effort in seeking to prove that the cuts were not "ideological" but an unavoidable response to the largest deficit in peacetime history. As I noted at the time, he declared in his 2010 New Year message:  

I didn't come into politics to make cuts. Neither did Nick Clegg. But in the end politics is about national interest, not personal political agendas. We're tackling the deficit because we have to – not out of some ideological zeal. This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country's problems, not by ideology.

But in his speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet last night, Cameron unambiguously abandoned this argument. He told the audience: 

We are sticking to the task. But that doesn't just mean making difficult decisions on public spending. It also means something more profound. It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently.

Far from being reversed once the structural deficit has been eliminated, the cuts are likely to continue. They are a matter of choice, not necessity. 

Cameron justified this approach by pointing to the allegedly superior outcomes achieved by austerity: "There are 40 per cent fewer people working in the Department for Education - but over 3,000 more free schools and academies, with more children doing tougher subjects than ever before. There are 23,000 fewer administrative roles in the NHS - but 5,000 more doctors, with shorter waiting times. So you can have a leaner, more efficient, more affordable state that actually delivers better results for the taxpayer."

Yet both schools and the NHS have had their budgets ring-fenced; the measures Cameron refers to are spending switches, rather than spending reductions. But even if he chose his examples rather poorly, the PM's intervention has redefined the terms of the austerity debate. 

By making it clear that he believes the government can do "more with less", Cameron has paved the way for a dramatic reduction in the size of the state. For those reliant on public services and the welfare state to maintain an adequate standard of living, it is a foreboding prospect. Having already announced £21.8bn of social security cuts, Cameron will seek to go even further should the Tories secure another term in office. The 1 per cent cap on benefit and tax credit increases (a real-terms reduction) is likely to be extended beyond 2015-16, child benefit limited to two children and the total benefit cap of £26,000 reduced to around £20,000 (a measure that would increase child poverty by hundreds of thousands). The PM may describe this as "efficiency", but those who feel the sharp end of the cuts are likely to find another word. 

David Cameron prepares to deliver his speech in the Guildhall during The Lord Mayor's Banquet in London last night. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.