Indicating a new austerity period may be around the corner, Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke, one of the PM’s inner circle, has told The Times British people need to expect significant cuts in public spending because for too long Western people have been living in a “fool’s paradise”.
Saturday 1 October 2022 18:31, UK
The devolved governments of the UK want an urgent meeting with Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng to discuss immediate action to reverse the damaging effects of the mini-budget.
In a joint letter, the finance ministers of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are warning that the government’s spending plans are a “huge gamble” that will mean another decade of austerity.
It comes as one of Liz Truss‘s closest political allies doubled down on the government’s economic policy, with warnings that major cuts in public spending are to come.
Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke, who is among the prime minister’s inner circle, told The Times that the British people need to expect significant cuts in public spending, because for too long the West has been living in a “fool’s paradise”.
Following on from Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng‘s tax-cutting mini-budget, he said the government needs to make sure the “extremely large” state is in “full alignment with a lower tax economy”.
It has led to fears another period of austerity is just around the corner, with the hardest hit likely to be those reliant on welfare.
In their letter to Mr Kwarteng, Welsh Finance Minister Rebecca Evans joined finance ministers from Scotland and Northern Ireland in highlighting the profound impact of “the largest set of unfunded tax cuts for the rich in over 50 years” stating it was “a huge gamble on public finances and the health of our economy”.
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They warned against being condemned to another decade of austerity and expressed deep concern over reports that UK government departments would be asked to make spending cuts to balance the budget, which may have profound consequences for devolved budget settlements already eroded by inflation.
In response, the Treasury insisted its plan would “ignite” growth across the UK, and Mr Kwarteng is expected to reply in the coming weeks.
The letter came hours before Ms Truss arrived in Birmingham on Saturday evening for the Conservative Party conference, which nearly two dozen senior Tory MPs are not attending in a sign of upset among the party following last week’s mini-budget.
Ms Evans, when she appeared on Sky News, did not rule out using Wales’ powers to raise the basic rate of tax back to 20%, after the UK government reduced the rate to 19%.
But Mr Clarke told The Times: “Western Europe is just living in a fool’s paradise whereby we can be ever less productive relative to our peers, and yet still enjoy a very large welfare state and persist in thinking that the two are somehow compatible over the medium to long term.
“They’re not. We need to address that… if we want those strong public services then we are going to have to pay for them.
“It is important that we look at a state which is extremely large, and look at how we can make sure that it is in full alignment with a lower tax economy.”
It comes on the eve of the Conservative Party conference and the chancellor defending his mini-budget by saying the government “had no other choice” than to do “something different” to spark the economy.
The mini-budget resulted in a tumultuous week which saw the pound fall to an all-time low against the dollar and the Bank of England being forced to spend billions to prevent a collapse of the pensions industry.
On Saturday, thousands of people joined cost of living protests in cities across the UK as part of a nationwide day of action by the Enough is Enough movement.
The group was founded by trade unions and other community organisations to push back against rising bills and low wages.
Demonstrations were held in locations including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Norwich, Nottingham and Newcastle, Enough is Enough said.
‘What the Thatcher government was doing in the 1980s’
Mr Clarke admitted it had been an “uncomfortable week” and defended Ms Truss, but said she would not be deflected from policies they predicted would be unpopular, and suggested her task was analogous to that faced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
“If I was to describe one word for Liz… it is purposeful,” he said. “She knew – and this was certainly something we discussed during the summer – that this would not be a comfortable process.
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“[She knew] particularly early on, there would be real potential unpopularity to be courted in seeking to say things and do things which weren’t going to be easy or quick wins. Frankly, she is doing what she believes is right.
“In some ways, there is an analogy with the 1980s and what the Thatcher government was seeking to do in terms of a reset moment where you fundamentally revisit how not just the previous government but multiple governments have addressed the fundamentals of the economy.”
‘We intend to be extremely rigorous’
Wales Secretary Sir Robert Buckland told Sky News that, while the government would work within its existing three-year spending review package, families could expect to find out what ministers are planning in the next few weeks.
Mr Buckland said he hopes the government’s upcoming announcements will be seen by the market as displaying “fiscal discipline”.
He appeared to confirm what Mr Clarke was suggesting when he said: “We intend to be extremely rigorous when it comes to bearing down on public expenditure.
“That will be developed in the weeks ahead. We’ve got a whole range of announcements coming out on not just spending, but supply-side reforms.
“Whether it’s childcare… or… broadband connectivity, all these things add up to an overall package that is designed to, first of all, facilitate growth in the economy, but secondly to emphasise that the government is responsible.”
‘We had to do something different’
Overnight, Mr Kwarteng said the public expected public spending to be tightly controlled.
He wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “The British taxpayer expects their government to work as efficiently and effectively as possible, and we will deliver on that expectation.
“Not all the measures we announced last week will be universally popular. But we had to do something different. We had no other choice.”
The chancellor insisted he would produce a “credible plan” to get public finances on track with a “commitment to spending discipline”.
On Friday night, Ms Truss acknowledged for the first time that “there has been disruption” to the UK economy following last week’s mini-budget.
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Asked on Friday whether she accepted this was a crisis of the government’s own making, the prime minister said: “It was very, very important that we took urgent steps to deal with the costs that families are facing this winter, putting in place the energy price guarantee for which we’ve had to borrow to cover the cost… but also making sure that we are not raising taxes at a time where there are global economic forces caused by the war in Ukraine that we need to deal with.
“I recognise there has been disruption. But it was really, really important that we were able to get help to families as soon as possible.”
Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow international trade secretary, told Sky News on Saturday: “This is a Tory crisis, made in Downing Street… they’ve crashed the economy by handing out enormous unfunded tax cuts to the very wealthiest people, and it’s going to be working people across the country that pay the price for this.
“They’ve also trashed our international reputation… and what the government has done is going to lead to economic pain for people that they have chosen… what the government needs to do is recall parliament and withdraw this budget.”
Truss and Kwarteng met top officials from Britain’s Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) on Friday.
Mr Kwarteng intends to publish an updated set of economic forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and a medium-term fiscal plan setting out how he plans to bring down government debt on 23 November.