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.
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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.

Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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