George Osborne leaves the HM Treasury building before heading to deliver his Autumn Statement. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Osborne stands by plan to continue cuts even after the deficit is gone

By insisting that a surplus of £23bn is necessary to reduce the national debt, the Chancellor has exposed himself to the charge that he is an ideologue. 

The reason the OBR now famously forecast that public spending would fall to its lowest level since the 1930s under George Osborne's plans is his intention to continue cutting even once the deficit has been eliminated. Owing to £14.5bn of additional tightening in 2019-20, the Chancellor is predicted to achieve a surplus of £23bn, far beyond what most economists consider necessary to stabilise the public finances (a surplus of £4.8bn is forecast in 2018-19). It is this that has allowed Labour to accuse the Tories (as Ed Miliband did at today's PMQs) of having a plan for "shrinking the state", rather than merely "balancing the books". The party believes that the fear of slashed and burned public services could win it the election. 

In an attempt to repair some of the political damage inflicted on the Tories, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke, told The Sunday Politics on 7 December that the party was not bound to a surplus of £23bn. He said: "We’ve made very clear we are committed to a surplus. At the moment the OBR predicts that we will have a surplus of £23bn, but we’re not making a commitment to the British people, 'that’s what the number will be in 2019'." 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee this afternoon, Osborne had the chance to do the same and dispel the image of him as an unrelenting axeman. But when questioned on the subject, he instead argued it was necessary to continue cutting in order to reduce the national debt as a share of GDP. He also said: "It’s absolutely the spending proposals that I submitted to the OBR." 

By emphasising the Tories' fiscal conservatism, Osborne is gambling that the voters will side with them over an opposition still viewed as profligate. But the opening he has provided for Labour means that fear of future cuts will now compete with fear of higher borrowing in the minds of voters. It is a battle that he is far from certain to win. As I noted yesterday, the latest ComRes/Independent survey found that 66 per cent do not believe that cuts should continue until the overall deficit has been eliminated with just 30 per cent in favour. 

Labour's shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie, has said in response: "George Osborne has finally admitted he approved the plans for deeper cuts which the OBR says will take public spending as a share of GDP back to 1930s levels. 

"After two weeks when the Tories have tried to say it's somehow the BBC's fault, George Osborne has come clean that these are his plans. The Tories are now pursuing increasingly extreme and ideological plans for much deeper spending cuts which go well beyond balancing the books.

"In contrast Labour will take a tough but balanced approach to cut the deficit each year and balance the books as soon as possible in the next Parliament. Our plan will make sensible spending cuts in non-protected areas, fairer choices like reversing the Tory tax cut for millionaires and change our economy so we earn our way to rising living standards for all."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.