Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour would cut much less than the Tories. Will it dare say so?

The party's plans would allow it to shield services from the worst. But for fear of appearing profligate it won't tell voters. 

If evidence was needed that the Conservatives fear the political consequences of the cuts to come, today's assault on the BBC's coverage of the Autumn Statement provided it. In his interview on the Today programme this morning, George Osborne denounced its reporting as "totally hyperbolic". The Chancellor, who never acts without political intent, was later supported by David Cameron whose spokesman said: "The prime minister and the chancellor do think those are hyperbolic descriptions, which don’t help us have what is important here, which is a clear and sensible and measured debate about the decisions that both are being taken and need to be taken in the future."

It was BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith's description of the OBR document as "the book of the doom" and his suggestion that the UK was heading "back to the land of Road to Wigan Pier" that provoked their ire. But while journalists are hardly unknown for hyperbole, Smith can be cleared of this charge. Ideological allies and foes of Osborne agree that the figures contained in the OBR blue book are truly remarkable.

By 2019-20, state spending is forecast to be just 35.2 per cent, the lowest level since the 1930s. To reach this point, without increasing taxes (in fact cutting them by £7.2bn), the Tories will need to cut departmental spending by £55bn in the next parliament: £20bn more than is this one. With most of Whitehall's low hanging fruit already having been plucked, the next government will find it impossible to cut without inflicting hitherto unimaginable damage on public services (which was exactly Smith's point). Local councils, schools, prisons and courts will all struggle to perform their basic duties (as many already are). 

Unsurprisingly, as I write in my column this week, the Tories fear that greater awareness of this could cost them the election due in five months' time. Osborne and other senior Tories partly blame their failure to win a majority on his "age of austerity" conference speech in 2009, which triggered a poll slump from which they never recovered. Labour was able to win back support as it warned of cuts to tax credits, reductions in child benefit, Sure Start closures and a rise in VAT (all denied by the Tories during the campaign only to be introduced immediately afterwards). In an attempt to avoid a repeat, the Tories are, quite logically, seeking to intimidate the BBC into silence. Fortunately, the corporation is putting up a robust defence, declaring that "We’re satisfied our coverage has been fair and balanced and we’ll continue to ask ministers the questions our audience want answered."

But the central political question is whether Labour can capitalise. By promising to introduce new tax rises (a 50p rate, a mansion tax, a bankers' bonus tax, a steeper bank levy), to leave room to borrow to invest and to only eliminate the current account deficit (rejecting the Tories' target of an absolute surplus), Ed Balls has avoided the need for cuts on the scale proposed by Osborne. The Resolution Foundation estimates that the post 2015-16 fiscal tightening required under his rules could be as low as £4bn. Unlike Osborne, ideologically fixated on achieving a surplus by 2018-19, Balls is playing a longer game, leaving open the possibility that the productive capacity of the economy will eventually recover (reducing the need for extreme austerity). 

Yet for fear of appearing profligate, Labour, as I note in my column, is terrified of saying as much. While vowing to reduce the deficit "in a fairer way" (through tax rises on the wealthy) and to promote the wage growth required to increase Treasury revenues, it won't say that its approach will help to shield public services from the worst. The result is that the Greens and the SNP are able to accuse Labour of signing up to Osbornite austerity ("they're all the same") and to pocket voters from the left. Many assume, as Dan Hodges did today, that Balls's plans mean he too would reduce spending to 1930s levels when the reverse is true. 

Interviewed on the Today programme this morning, the shadow chancellor rightly said: "I want to make sure we get the deficit down in a way which doesn’t destroy our national defences, undermine social care, hit the National Health Service". But it took far too many questions before he made this point. As Osborne's plans come under greater scrutiny from the BBC and others, the opposition will need to decide whether it is finally prepared to set out this dividing line. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.