Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Even if Iran gets the bomb, it won’t be worth going to war (Daily Telegraph)

Containment is a better response than conflict in dealing with a country we have long mishandled, argues Jack Straw.

2. Voters expect Osborne to stay his course (Financial Times)

The British are busy hunkering down for years of squeezed living standards, writes Janan Ganesh.

3. The Lord Rennard scandal marks the moment the Lib Dems discovered they are on the big stage (Independent)

Clegg would not for a second be indifferent to precise allegations, but the response to this media frenzy does expose his party's inexperience, says Steve Richards.

4. Will EDF become the Barbra Streisand of climate protest? (Guardian)

The energy giant is part of a global strategy by corporations to stifle democracy, writes George Monbiot. Clearly it hasn't heard of the Streisand effect

5. The Lib Dems’ problem isn’t sex. It’s power (Times) (£)

Senior figures joined the party never expecting to be in the spotlight, writes Rachel Sylvester. Now it’s revealing political and personal flaws.

6. What Kerry needs to know about Iran (Financial Times)

Tehran is willing to enter into talks with the US, says Hossein Mousavian.

7. In Eastleigh, it's the worst kind of Westminster charade (Guardian)

While austerity rages on, the town's already disillusioned voters are being offered merely sordid spectacle, says Polly Toynbee.

8. A cap on bankers’ bonuses would be lunacy (Daily Telegraph)

If Europe does insist on bringing in legislation, it will make Britain’s EU exit even more likely, says Norman Lamont.

9. Downgrade exposes the myth about cuts (Daily Mail)

George Osborne must stop talking about cutting spending and actually do it, says a Daily Mail editorial. 

10. Why is free admission to art galleries and museums sacrosanct, when free swimming is not? (Independent)

Even in a time of straitened national finances, it never pays to underestimate the awesome power of the arts lobby in Britain, writes Dominic Lawson.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.