John Woodcock argues the defence spending row exposes Osborne’s spin

George Osborne may be flavour of the month in Conservative associations and media comment pages, but the latest spending row between him and Defence Secretary Liam Fox has underlined a major weakness that Labour must exploit.

This appears to be an administration intent on learning from New Labour’s mistake of coming too slow to the table with fundamental reform. There is a speed and ferocity with which the Tories, aided and abetted by the Lib Dems, are seeking to embed a new presumption that public spending is bad while eye-watering cuts are wholesome and necessary.

What has been signalled so far surpasses the shrillest of Labour’s pre-election warnings – warnings that were rubbished as scare-mongering. Prior to victory, the Conservative leader gave the impression you could get spending back into balance simply by taking a Kim and Aggie approach to government waste.

Yet for all they could rightly protest to have been deceived, the public are hardly manning the barricades or demanding a re-run of the election. Attitudes may change substantially once the cuts begin to bite, but Labour cannot just sit back and wait for that to happen.

At first glance, the 39-year-old who has set this change of course for the UK economy seems a million miles away from the cocky lightweight Peter Mandelson so easily unpicked on his summer holiday a couple of years ago. Hence his rise in the estimation of his colleagues.

And yet, a closer examination suggests Osborne remains at heart a tricksy operator whose delight in political games could cause him to over-reach and expose his party.

Treasury grandstanding over which bit of government should foot the bill for renewing the deterrent is the latest example. The last Labour government on this was clear –  the costs should not come out of the Ministry of Defence’s capital budget but should instead be borne out of a central pot.

To reverse that now, on top of demanding a massive 20 per cent cut in the Defence Secretary’s budget, suggests a chancellor playing crude games of brinkmanship and expectation management. Step one – soften ‘em up by threatening Liam Fox with absorbing the cost of replacing Trident on top of demands for huge cuts from an already over-committed budget; Step two – graciously relent on Trident and have the final figure fall a bit shy of 20 per cent, leaving Fox forced to settle and the country so impressed that they completely fail to notice the damage set to be wreaked on our defence capability. Ahem. (Either that, or Osborne really is content to allow Britain’s national security, and the Conservatives’ reputation on defence, to take a hit from which neither would be able to recover.)

If this weekend was the first example of these tactics then you might give Osborne the benefit of the doubt. After all, he isn’t the only chancellor in living memory to push it with the military (though the tight settlements of the previous decades will look like surprising largesse compared with the havoc about to be signed off). And early on New Labour played the odd game of expectation management in the press, I seem to recall.

The Tories constantly seek to portray themselves as so different, so much better than their predecessors. Yet the first two months suggest they have gone back to the worst excesses of spin the last government left behind many years ago. Events this weekend are just the latest in a line of clever little plays from the Chancellor designed to feed the media beast, ramp up expectations, and throw us Labour MPs off our guard.  

Leaking that departments are actually being asked to prepare 40 per cent cuts. Thigh slapping genius. Filling the demand for stories on overseas trips by gathering together the press pack out in Toronto for the G20 and telling them that you are going to make big cuts in incapacity benefit – even though your budget the previous week made no mention of it.

A few weeks ago I heard someone close to Osborne say that the chancellor’s great strength was that he was an astute politician who could manage an essentially political process of bringing the country round to the idea of mega-cuts and a minimalist state (the last bit is my para-phrasing!).

But the tactics above only work in the middle of a honeymoon period with an adoring press pack hanging on your every word.

In the real world they are the hallmarks of an arrogant, over-confident man who has yet to be properly tested.

As economic reality begins to rub the shine off this government, we had better make sure we do test George Osborne. I have a feeling that the Lord Mandelson’s assessment of him may prove to be the one that sticks.

John Woodcock is Labour and Co-operative MP for Barrow and Furness.

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3 Responses to “John Woodcock argues the defence spending row exposes Osborne’s spin”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alice Pilia, John McTernan, Maureen Czarnecki, TheBiPolarBearMD, Labour Uncut and others. Labour Uncut said: Defence row exposes Osborne's spin says @JWoodcockMP – […]

  2. Where’s the evidence getting rid of Trident would “allow… the Conservatives’ reputation on defence, to take a hit from which neither would be able to recover”?

    You’re the MP for Barrow, which gets a significant economic benefit from Trident. You’re pro-Trident. I understand that. I don’t know what you were doing three decades ago, but you may still have the scars from 1983. I understand that too.

    But why the assumption that dropping a strategic deterrent is a third rail in politics? The cold war is over and has been for two decades. Nobody but pub bores and Monday Club nutters think you can use nuclear weapons to control terrorists. Trident was never exactly uncontroversial even in its heyday and it’s doubtful support for it has increased since.

    That’s not to say a majority of the country opposes it. I have no idea and in any case the raw numbers aren’t the significant thing, it’s the cross-tabs and the importance people place upon with regard to voting intention.

    But it is to say that a three-card trick is possible for the coalition – making the case that Trident is unaffordable but disarmament is unserious, and looking for a cheaper and potentially non-strategic equivalent. I doubt they’ll do it – they’re pro-deterrent and they don’t have that much interest in placating the Lib Dems – but we should be ready for it. Dropping Trident would make you safe, but it’d actually help the coalition with a lot of left-leaning middle-class voters, who are not an insignificant factor in a fair amount of marginal seats. Playing a hard line here isn’t that useful, as those who are pro-Trident tend to have other more important issues they vote on (i.e. jobs), whereas the converse is less true.

    I also have to question whether Osborne is the one to blame here. Fox doesn’t play well with others and he may just be trying to prevent this by leaking misleadingly, or it may just be a feint from Osborne to pressure a certain darling of the Tory right to shut up and stop causing Cameron headaches.

  3. Henrik says:

    It ill behooves any member of the Labour Party to don the bloody shirt, given the damage they have inflicted on the British Armed Forces since 1997. Of all the issues to take on the Tories, defence is surely the one absolutely guaranteed to explode in the comrades’ faces. How many wars was it we got involved in after 1997, can someone remind me? Could someone also explain to me how many of those wars were actually fought in defence of a vital British strategic interest?

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