David Cameron and George Osborne speak during a Q&A session at the construction company Skanska on April 22, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories are living in a fiscal fantasy land

The party cannot promise to eliminate the deficit, avoid further tax rises and cut taxes at the same time. 

It is possible for the Tories to promise to eliminate the deficit by the end of the next parliament, or to avoid any further tax rises, or to cut taxes. What is not possible for them to do is to promise all three. But that is the fantasy land they now inhabit. After previously pledging to achieve a budget surplus by 2020 and to clear the reminder of the £106bn deficit through spending cuts alone, they are now dangling the prospect of tax cuts in front of voters. 

At an event yesterday, David Cameron declared that he would "love" to reduce the 40p tax threshold, having earlier pledged to cut inheritance tax and to continue reducing taxes on low earners. He did at least promise to "look very carefully at the books". Once he has done, he should think again. 

The IFS has long warned that the next government will need to raise taxes or cut welfare by around £12bn merely to keep departmental spending cuts at their current level. It is just about plausible that the Tories could eradicate the deficit without any new tax rises if they cut social security to the bone (with baleful consequences for the poor), but it is inconceivable that they could also cut taxes. This is not least because, as the IFS has also noted, the government has announced £7bn of giveaways from 2015-16 onwards, including free school meals for five to seven year olds, the social care cap, childcare tax breaks and the married couple's tax allowance, that will have to be met from shrinking departmental budgets. 

Before the 2010 general election, the Tories similarly refused to face fiscal reality. The weekend before the election, Cameron declared that any future cabinet minister who proposed “front-line reductions” in services would be “sent straight back to their department to go away and think again”. During the campaign, he said that his party had “absolutely no plans” to raise VAT, that he “wouldn’t means-test” child benefit, that Sure Start centres would not be closed and that the Education Maintenance Allowance would remain in place. Each one of these promises was broken before the year was out.

After this it was said that "never again" would the parties be able to go into an election without spelling out the full consequences of austerity to voters. But as the Tories' recent statements show, we are further than ever from having the "honest debate" that Cameron and Osborne claim to offer. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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