Iraqi tribes men carry their weapons as they gather, volunteering to fight along side the Iraqi security forces against jihadist militants. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Hague defends the Iraq war as Boris disowns it

The Foreign Secretary says "I don't think the invasion itself was a mistake".

When the Commons voted for the final time on the Iraq war, all but 16 Conservative MPs (including Ken Clarke) supported Tony Blair's government. Events since then have, unsurprisingly, prompted several to recant, and Boris Johnson has become the latest to do so today. In an excoriating Telegraph column, the mayor writes: "The Iraq war was a tragic mistake; and by refusing to accept this, Blair is now undermining the very cause he advocates – the possibility of serious and effective intervention. Blair’s argument (if that is the word for his chain of bonkers assertions) is that we were right in 2003, and that we would be right to intervene again."

But asked on the Today programme this morning whether he shared the mayor's contrition, William Hague replied: "I don't think the invasion itself was a mistake". The Foreign Secretary limited himself to saying that "mistakes were made" in the aftermath of the war (most obviously the complete dismantlement of the Iraqi state) and noted that he argued long and hard in opposition for a public inquiry. 

Asked whether he was ruling out new British intervention action in Iraq, Hague carefully replied that "to rule all things out in all circumstances would be a mistake" and rejected the notion that the government's defeat over intervention in Syria proves that the Commons is "never prepared to authorise military action". He was clear, however, that British involvement will almost certainly be limited to humanitarian aid and the offer of counter-terrorism expertise. 

The most salient point that Hague made was that it would be a mistake to view the issue through the prism of western intervention. There are forces at work - the rise of ISIS, the sharpening Sunni-Shia divide - that go far beyond the rights and wrongs of military action. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to prevent Iraq's downward spiral being used as an occasion for unsightly grandstanding over 2003. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.