George Osborne and Ed Balls walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Osborne refuses to rule out raising VAT after promising £2bn for NHS

The Chancellor says he"doesn't have any plans" to increase the tax: the same phrase he used before the 2010 increase. 

George Osborne's promise of £2bn extra for the NHS is an attempt to neutralise one of Labour's strongest attack lines. By providing new money for the health service in Wednesday's Autumn Statement, the Chancellor hopes to render the opposition's pledge to spend £2.5bn extra irrelevant. In a shameless act of political plagiarism, he used his appearance on the Marr show to announce a further increase: the £1.1bn the government will receive in bank fines over the foreign exchange rate scandal will be used to fund improved GP services (Ed Balls last weekend called for the money to be spent on the NHS). By arguing that the £2bn of new funding has only been made possible by the Tories' "long-term economic plan" and their commitment to deficit reduction, Osborne aims to use Labour's weakness on fiscal responsibility to undermine its strength on the health service (the issue on which it polls best). 

In his own interview on Marr, Balls described the extra £2bn as "crisis money" made necessary by the coalition's "mismanagement" of the service. He also questioned whether it was merely a "one-off bung". But the Tory Treasury Twitter account was quick to reply that the money would be "baselined" (i.e. included in new calculations of future NHS spending) making it a permanent rather than a temporary increase (something confirmed by Osborne in his appearance). 

But the awkward question remains: how will all this be paid for? After Osborne's NHS spending promise, it is even harder to see how he will meet his pledge to eliminate the deficit by the end of the next parliament while simultaneously avoiding further tax rises and cutting taxes by £7.2bn (increasing the personal allowance to £12,500 and the 40p rate threshold to £50,000). Most economists believe that he will fail on at least one of these fronts. 

It was telling, then, that Osborne repeatedly refused to rule out raising VAT, stating that he "doesn't have any plans" to do so: the exact formulation used before the 2010 increase. Given the historic tendency of governments to raise taxes immediately after the election, it is right to be suspicious. But Osborne clearly believes that the Tories' polling strength on the deficit means that they can get away with such fiscal recklessness in a way Labour never could. 

After today's high octane politics, the opposition's hope is that Osborne's intervention will only raise the salience of the NHS and ultimately benefit them. The Chancellor's gamble is that it will achieve the reverse. By at least giving the appearance of providing an answer to the funding crisis (Labour would still spend more) he hopes to deny Balls and Ed Miliband any benefit from running on this issue. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.