Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. Labour has a plan to save the NHS, but does it have the nerve? (Daily Telegraph)

A health service built for an age of quick cures and brief lives needs drastic surgery, says Mary Riddell.

2. Syria and the Middle East: our greatest miscalculation since the rise of fascism (Guardian)

By helping to destroy secular politics in the Middle East, the west has unleashed the Shia/Sunni conflict now tearing it apart, writes Simon Jenkins. 

3. Tory RBS sell-off is cheap trick to get votes (Daily Mirror)

Selling the shares off cheap might be good politics in the short term but it is not good for the country, says Alistair Darling. 

4. Arming the rebels is the best path to peace (Times)

Victory for either side would be a disaster, so the best option is to drive them both to the negotiating table, writes Anthony Loyd.

5. Tories can learn from GOP mistakes (Financial Times)

Your party won’t consider your reforms if they think you don’t respect them, says Jon Huntsman.

6. These spending cuts go to the heart of what sort of society we want to be (Independent)

Decisions made now will tie the hands of the next government too, writes Hamish McRae. 

7. Who are terrorists talking to? We must know (Times)

Clever use of surveillance technology doesn’t recruit terrorists; it puts them in jail, says Nick Herbert.

8. Japan’s bumpy road to a recovery (Financial Times)

Abe’s economic nationalism may clash with that of China, writes Martin Wolf.

9. Britain's wars fuel terror. Denying it only feeds Islamophobia (Guardian)

Those who send British troops to shed blood in the Muslim world must share the blame for atrocities like Woolwich, argues Seumas Milne. 

10. The real reason our shops are shutting up (Daily Telegraph)

It’s easy to blame the internet, but soaring rates and rents are crippling high street retailers, writes Mary Hull. 

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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.