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18 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:11am

Will Hutton’s attack on Osborne’s “ill-advised spending review“

Are there tears emerging in the new "big tent"?

By James Macintyre

Back in May, many Westminster observers were surprised to see the liberal commentator Will Hutton appointed by the Tory-led coalition to head up a review into public-sector pay. Along with the Labour MP Frank Field, who was made “poverty tsar”, Hutton was seen as part of a new “big tent” around the Government. From the Guardian:

The appointment places Hutton at the heart of one of the most challenging policy areas for the new coalition.

The move was seen as shrewd by those sympathetic to the coalition and curious to those rather more sympathetic to the unorthodox economic views of Hutton, the author of The State We’re In, which argues that fiscal challenges cannot be tackled in isolation from social problems.

So it was perhaps a little shocking, if ultimately unsurprising, to open the Observer comment pages yesterday and see a major attack on the government’s approach to the much-hyped Spending Review coming later this week. Under the headline, “History will see these cuts as one of the great acts of political folly — As America and China square up, the Chancellor is ignoring the bigger picture with his ill-advised spending review”, Hutton concluded, about the ideological cuts to come:

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Unless something changes dramatically, it is hard to see how China and the US can do anything else but remain, at best, deadlocked, at worst, sliding towards economic war.

Britain should be doing all in its power to avoid this disaster and to have a plan B to protect itself if disaster strikes. We should be offering to play our full part in any world deal to buy time for the US and China to change, while making sure we can act fast and flexibly to respond to a climate of beggar-my-neighbour trade and currency policies. The spending review should have been framed to allow Britain to play its part in boosting world demand, help the world arrive at the compromises necessary to sustain economic order and make our recovery more secure. It will not be. The coalition has many admirable aims and that two political parties can work together so effectively is refreshing. But everything is being put at risk by once again kowtowing to the gods of financial orthodoxy. That was always wrong in the past. It is no less wrong today.

It appears, then, that Hutton’s influence within the coalition is limited, not unlike that of the Liberal Democrats, also sucked into the new “big tent”. There may be a story behind this; Hutton may yet speak out further. But for now his comments show that — in advance of George Osborne’s heavily leaked announcements on Wednesday — all may not be quite as happy as it looks on the Good Ship Coalition.

UPDATE: A friend of Hutton’s texts to say: “Will Hutton is a lovely, brilliant man, but a little unpredictable on occasion. That column was probably a pang of conscience. He must have taken quite a lot of stick from chums over helping the government.”