George Osborne is given a tour of the production line at Bentley Motors on December 4, 2014 in Crewe. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

What happened to Osborne's deficit trap for Labour?

There is no sign of the updated Charter for Budget Responsibility that the Chancellor promised would be published by now. 

It was supposed to be George Osborne's great trap for Labour. In his recent Autumn Statement, the Chancellor promised an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility committing the government (and in theory a Labour administration) to an aggressive pace of deficit reduction. He said: "Next week we will publish a new Charter for Budget Responsibility that will reinforce our commitment to finish the job in the next Parliament, and we will ask the House to vote on it in the new year."

The implicit aim was to force Labour to either match his plans, and commit itself to billions of pounds of additional cuts (something which wouldn't be well received by the left and the trade unions), or to oppose them and be denounced as fiscally irresponsible. Such was the pre-briefing around the move that there was speculation Osborne would publish the new Charter immediately after the Autumn Statement and stage a vote the following day. The Chancellor's Autumn Statement downgraded this to "next week", with the vote to follow in the new year. But the week referred to by Osborne has now been and gone and the promised Charter still hasn't been published. 

This delay follows confusion over what target MPs would be invited to vote on (as I reported last month). In his Budget in March, Osborne suggested that it would be on his commitment to achieve an overall surplus by the end of the next parliament. But later briefing suggested it would be on the alternative target of eliminating the structural current deficit by 2017-18. This aim, unlike that of a surplus, is endorsed by the Lib Dems. But with Nick Clegg's party focused on differentiating itself from the Tories (even as it prepares for another coalition), it was unclear whether it would be prepared to line up with the Tories. Without support from the Lib Dems, Osborne would be unable to achieve a majority for the Charter. Whatever the reason for the delay (I am awaiting comment from the Treasury), Labour has been quick to pounce. The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie said:

In the Budget George Osborne was talking about a vote on balancing the overall budget. Then last month the Treasury tried to lay the ground for a big u-turn by briefing that the vote would only be on balancing the current budget, excluding capital investment.

And now, after all the hype and promises that a new Charter would have been published over the last week, the government has totally failed to publish anything. This is a total mess. As ever, these so called Tory traps are backfiring on the Chancellor.
 
Labour has set out a tough but balanced approach to get the current budget into surplus and the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next Parliament.

Our first election pledge announced this week is that we will balance the books and cut the deficit every year, while securing the future of our NHS. This will require sensible spending cuts in non-protected areas, fairer choices including reversing the Tory tax cut for millionaires and a plan to deliver the rising living standards and stronger growth needed to balance the books.
 
In contrast the Tories are pursuing an increasingly unbalanced and extreme approach. They have chosen to pencil in even deeper spending cuts, which would return public spending to a share of GDP last seen in the 1930s.

They are refusing to ask those with the broadest shoulders to make a greater contribution and ignoring the need for a plan to deliver the rising living standards that are vital to getting the deficit down. And they have now made £7 billion of unfunded tax promises, which can only be paid for by even deeper cuts to public spending or another Tory VAT rise.

George Osborne should spend less time playing silly political games and more time sorting out the economy and trying to make his sums add up.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue