George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Balls is so confident about attacking Osborne's cuts

The shadow chancellor remembers that it was fear of "Tory cuts" that handed Labour victory in 2001 and 2005, and denied the Conservatives a majority in 2010. 

On the day of last year's Autumn Statement, as George Osborne's chief of staff Rupert Harrison briefed journalists on its contents, a nearby Labour strategist texted me highlighting a line in the new OBR document: "Check out para 1.8 (page 6) of the main document. On projections of the share of GDP consumed by govt. Alarming...". This apparently obscure reference went on to provide the basis for an entire new line of attack by Labour. The relevant section read: "Total public spending is now projected to fall to 35.2 per cent of GDP in 2019-20, taking it below the previous post-war lows reached in 1957-58 and 1999-00 to what would be probably be its lowest level in 80 years." It was this finding that allowed Labour to warn that George Osborne would cut spending to its lowest level since the 1930s - before the creation of the NHS and comprehensive education. 

To mark the start of this election year, Ed Balls takes up the charge in today's Guardian, declaring that "There are moments in politics when, amid the fog of accusation and rebuttal, things suddenly become crystal clear. And it’s now clear that last month’s autumn statement was another of those rare defining moments – the day Chancellor George Osborne ceded the political centre ground to Labour". 

He adds: "In the runup to the autumn statement we all knew the ongoing squeeze on living standards was leading to a huge shortfall in tax revenues, throwing deficit reduction plans badly off track. What took everyone by surprise was that, in the face of forecasts that this loss of tax revenues would continue, Chancellor Osborne would choose to make up the shortfall with massively deeper spending cuts in the next parliament."

The confidence with which Balls attacks Osborne on territory previously considered unfavourable for Labour is striking. But a clue is provided in the second line of his piece: "I remember well the speech in summer 2000 when the shadow chancellor, Michael Portillo, set out Conservative plans to cut public spending to fund tax cuts – the moment we knew they had lost the 2001 election." As Gordon Brown's former chief economic adviser, Balls recalls better than most that it was fear of Conservative cuts that handed Labour victory in 2001 and 2005. 

It was awareness of this failure that led David Cameron and George Osborne to pledge in 2007 to match Labour's spending plans in the next parliament (thus denying Brown "baseline" advantage). But the financial crisis and the resultant surge in the deficit led the Tories to abandon their commitment, instead promising an "age of austerity". Their subsequent failure to win a majority is partly blamed by Osborne on voters' fear of the cuts to come. Labour was able to warn (accurately, as it proved) that child benefit, tax credits, Sure Start and the Education Maintenance Allowance were all under threat. 

By vowing to continue cutting even after the deficit has been eliminated, the Chancellor has provided the opposition with a new opportunity to depict him as a dangerous ideologue. Balls's claim that Labour now owns the "centre ground" is supported by a recent ComRes/Independent survey showing that 66 per cent do not believe that cuts should continue until the deficit has been eradicated with just 30 per cent in favour. Polls have also long shown backing for the party's pledge to impose higher taxes on the rich, such as a 50p rate of income tax and a mansion tax. 

The challenge for Labour is combining its attack on Conservative cuts with the acknowledgment that it, too, would reduce spending. As Balls writes: "Let me be clear, including to those who would wish it were not so: Labour will need to cut public spending in the next parliament to balance the books." Labour is left with precisely the dividing line that Brown wanted to avoid in 2010: good cuts against bad cuts. The SNP and the Greens are seeking to capitalise by attacking the party's embrace of austerity. But Labour believes that a commitment to cut spending (albeit by far less than the Conservatives) is necessary to counter the fear that it would allow the deficit to rise and "crash the car" again. Just as only Nixon could go to China, so the party hopes that only it will be trusted to "balance the books" in a fair way. 

Should fear of "Tory cuts" cost the Conservatives victory for a fourth time, Osborne will truly have been snared by his own creation

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.