Ed Balls wields a rather vague axe. Photo: Getty
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Ed Balls: We will cut every year until the deficit is down

As Labour confronts the deficit problem today, the shadow chancellor warns his shadow cabinet colleagues that they will make cuts every year.

It's the moment the Labour party has been trying to avoid: addressing the deficit. And its reluctance is little wonder considering it is jumped upon by the right every time it suggests a tax rise or a whiff of an unfunded spending commitment, and by the left when it discusses continuing the government's austerity project.

However, today is the day that Ed Miliband will address the deficit problem and explain how his party would tackle it if it is voted into government next year. George analyses what Miliband is expected to say today about cutting the deficit, and reports that there will be new announcements in the speech. However, whether these will include protecting public services or plans for cuts is another story.

It is clear Labour is holding something back, and not just until Miliband speaks today. The shadow chancellor Ed Balls, interviewed on the BBC's Today programme this morning, would not answer the question about when he would like to balance the books by, insisting that such answers are impossible to give until tax revenues are in and give a better idea of how much money there is (George Osborne was disappointed on tax receipts when delivering his Autumn Statement last week).

This shows Labour's reluctance to make the same mistake as Osborne and set itself up for missing a target, and therefore being vulnerable to a hammering from its political opponents. While it is wise to learn from the Chancellor's missed target, the Labour party does sound like it is prevaricating over the subject that it has so vocally decided to face head-on: balancing the books. There is the argument that it is even unnecessary for the party to devote a whole speech to this subject at all, considering the deficit is the way in which the Conservatives frame the economic debate, and are still more trusted by the public with fixing it.

However, in a harsher and more specific message, Balls also reiterated on Today his warning to shadow cabinet colleagues (aside from the shadow health and international development secretaries) that their departments, if they make it to government, will have to cut every single year until the deficit has been eliminated:

You should be planning on the basis that your departmental budgets will be cut not only in 2015/16, but each year until we have achieved our promise to balance the books.

Labour's biggest challenge will be to tell us what those cuts would include, and how deep they would be. As Labour has taken the risky decision to directly tackle the deficit question, it's time for Balls to sharpen the rather vague axe he is wielding.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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