George Osborne prepares to lead members of the Treasury team out of 11 Downing Street to face the media before the Budget. Photograph: Getty Images.
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George Osborne shamelessly courts the pensioner vote

The Chancellor's offer to the over-65s is rational but crude politics: they vote more than any other age group.

There is a simple explanation for the lengthy section devoted to supporting savers and pensioners at the end of George Osborne's Budget speech: they vote. In 2010, 76 per cent of the over-65s turned out, more than any other age group. If the Tories are to edge Labour in a close election next year, winning the support of this group will be crucial.

For years since the coalition was formed, Conservative MPs have been calling for the Chancellor to provide relief to the pensioners (a significant number of whom have defected to UKIP) whose savings have been hit by the "monetary activism" (ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing) he regards as necessary to support the recovery.

Today, he acted. He announced the abolition of the 10 per cent tax band on savings (taking at swipe at Labour by adding "when I abolish a 10p rate, I don't secretly turn it into a 20p rate") and the doubling of the zero pence band to £5,000, the launch of a new pensioner bond paying market rates, the removal of tax restrictions on how pensioners drawdown their savings pots, and a new "Right to Advice" for those retiring on defined contribution pensions. All of these measures were designed to match Osborne's rhetorical commitment to those who have "worked hard" and "saved" throughout their lives. His decision to exclude the state pension from the new cap on welfare spending is another show of support for this group. 

Many will rightly question his priorities. It is pensioners who have suffered the least during the long squeeze, with their benefits shielded from austerity, while the young have suffered the most. But Osborne's decision to favour the former over the latter is rational, if crude, politics. 

It is worth noting, however, that today's measures could well be a prelude to a Conservative pledge to means-test universal pensioner benefits, such as Winter Fuel Payments, free bus passes and free TV licences, in 2015. While the state pension has been excluded from the welfare cap, these payments have not. Osborne's "Budget for savers" may well be aimed at providing the Tories with the protective cover they need to execute this U-turn. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.