Mary Riddell writes:
The screw tightens. With the spending review in sight, Cabinet ministers are horse-trading to protect their departments. These metaphorical steeds are hardly Epsom winners. Even before the great lasagne scandal was uncovered, the horses in question might have been deemed unfit for cut-price ready meals. With budgets already pared to the bone, the prospect of further reductions is causing anguish.
The PM has been forced to rebuke nimbyish secretaries of state seeking to ring-fence their budgets by agitating for welfare cuts instead. The Liberal Democrats have also made clear they will not countenance the further raid on welfare suggested by the Defence Secretary and others. As the Tories agonise, a recurring question goes unanswered. What would Labour cut? With the Opposition struggling to persuade voters of its economic credibility, there are three reasons for it to dispel some of the mystery around its deficit reduction programme.
The first is the Eastleigh by-election. Despite its inglorious fourth place, Labour confidence is growing. According to one senior figure, Eastleigh was “the proof that David Cameron cannot win a majority in 2015”. The issue, in the view of this shadow minister, is whether Ed Miliband squeaks home by default or whether he can win handsomely and govern boldly.
The second reason is that the party’s big ideas will probably include an integrated health and social care service, universal child care and a vast house-building programme. Given that Labour is likely to stick to the overall Tory budget, even Mr Miliband’s supporters wonder whether he can afford one of these flagship policies, let alone all three.
The third reason for more candour is the charge that politicians are all the same, and not only because they are spawned from a gene pool of metropolitan elitism or because they huddle together on the centre ground. Recession breeds conformity, with Identikit politicians perceived to be scrabbling over the same diminishing resources.
Labour, forced into mimicry, is playing the fiscal equivalent of grandmother’s footsteps, the schoolyard game in which one player steals up behind another. If, for example, George Osborne announces tax breaks for child care in this month’s Budget, expect Labour to pocket the plan and announce how it would spend the money differently. With only such spending switches differentiating the main parties, voters are turning elsewhere in search of original thinking.
Though Ed Balls is, quite rightly, an evangelist for economic stimulus, even his colleagues dismiss the notion that the fruits of growth will fill the funding gap. If Labour is to ring-fence the NHS and overseas aid, as Mr Balls has undertaken, and if it will not plunder the welfare budget, then it must stray into the areas that the Tories will not touch. One obvious example is staring it in the face. Between now and 2016, Britain must decide whether to spend £25 billion replacing the four submarines that carry nuclear-tipped Trident missiles. If that like-for-like replacement goes ahead, it will swallow at least one third of the defence budget after 2020.
While this lavish project has attracted some cross-party criticism (the former Tory defence secretary, Michael Portillo, calls it “a tremendous waste of money… done entirely for reasons of national prestige”), Labour’s view is coloured by a unilateralist, CND-badged past that it would rather erase. Despite that blip, every Labour government since the Second World War has backed the nuclear deterrent. Ernest Bevin’s endorsement of a British bomb – “We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs” – has become an article of faith for all his party’s leaders. Mr Miliband may be about to break with that.
The Trident question is preoccupying Labour. With the Lib Dem review on alternatives due this month, protagonists are speaking out. Lord West, the “simple sailor” who advised Gordon Brown, deems the full replacement programme essential. The same case has been made in these pages by two former Labour defence secretaries, Lord Robertson and Lord Hutton. The latter is the one-time MP for Barrow, where the Vanguard submarines would be built.
Meanwhile, a third former MoD incumbent, Lord Browne, argues that like-for-like replacement is neither strategically sound nor economically viable. Lord Wood, one of Mr Miliband’s senior strategists, has made an excellent Lords speech explaining why “multilateral disarmament is… vital to the world’s safety and security”. Assorted military figures think it beyond madness that, in an age of stateless terrorists and cyber-warriors, Britain insists on having a Cold War reliquary of armed submarines constantly at sea, their never-to-be-used missiles targeted at nothing, when even Russia has abandoned such extravagant posturing and President Obama is looking to slash the US missile stock.
Lord Browne is not proposing that Trident be scrapped or that any Lib Dem plan for bargain-basement nukes be embraced. His modest suggestion is that Britain should look again at the need for Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD). Defence experts say that were that requirement to be reduced, the lifespan of the current fleet might be extended and Britain could ultimately make do with two new Vanguards instead of four. With the clashes growing more heated, Mr Miliband is reported to be signed up to backing Tory replacement plans. I am told that is “categorically” not the case. Although no decision has been taken, the Labour leader is said to be sympathetic to the ideas of Lord Browne. The Browne proposal, with its multilateralist insistence that a credible deterrent be maintained, should satisfy shadow cabinet members, defence spokesman Jim Murphy included, who proclaim themselves open to sensible alternatives.
Trident may yet prove a defining issue, offering savings far beyond the symbolic to a leader aware that he must counter public indifference on a range of issues. Tomorrow, in Labour’s first party broadcast on immigration, Mr Miliband will be seen going back to Acton Technical College, where his father learnt English, to stress that Labour’s past policies were wrong. As well as repeating that immigrants must learn the language and pointing out the importance of enforcing the minimum wage, he is likely to hint – in a message evocative of the Gillian Duffy debacle – at the folly of making voters feel like bigots. He will not say it, but Labour may, in another catch-up, adopt Tory plans to curb benefits and health care for some migrants. Eastleigh, where immigration was a major issue, has dealt Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron alike a warning that voters are rejecting big-party politics.
Unlike Ukip, both leaders must offer real policies, real growth and real cuts. With the regular soldiers in the British Army reduced to the lowest number since the Napoleonic Wars, Labour might more usefully promise golden elephants on plinths for every barracks than pledge to match the Tories’ nuclear bonanza. A more modest Trident programme, though only a start, would signal that Mr Miliband can avoid the fate of social democrats, such as France’s François Hollande. Victory alone will not suffice. Unless Labour recognises how much the world has changed, voters will ensure that Ed Miliband’s taste of power is nasty, brutish and short.