Front Bench: Is time up for austerity?

Today’s Front Bench focuses on the Government’s response to the Salisbury poisoning and the Spring Statement. A sample of the email is below. If you like what you see, sign up here. Don’t forget to vote in the poll and leave your reasoning in the comments below. The best responses will feature in this afternoon’s Brexit Briefing.

Front Bench

There was high drama in the Commons on Monday as the Prime Minister gave Russia until midnight tonight to explain itself over the use of the rare and highly dangerous nerve agent Novichok against the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. 

What next? 

It does appear now that the United States will back Britain, with the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, saying there should be “serious consequences” for Russia, while Nato has said it is contact with London over the attack. 

Yet the UK may be limited in its available responses by the difficulty of finding actions that follow due process, don’t risk a dramatic escalation, and have an impact on a Russian regime that turns Western outrage and sanctions into political strength. 

Some new options have emerged, with The Times reporting that ministers are “preparing the ground for a secret cyber-counterattack.” Meanwhile, the PM has suggested she may move against the Russian state broadcaster RT. The Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Patrick Wintour, has a particularly clear breakdown of the options available to the UK, and their corresponding limitations. 

Misreading the room 

The other event of note in the Commons was the response to the PM’s statement by Jeremy Corbyn, and the remarkably hostile reaction from both sides of the chamber. The Labour leader not only chose not to criticise Russia and to warn Theresa May not to “let tensions get worse”, but also decided to go on the attack and question the Tory party’s Russian donors. 

The response was less than friendly, as Michael Deacon documents. Yet however crass the Corbyn intervention, the context of it won’t matter on social media, and the usual online Corbynistas are already pushing the line

Before that, the Spring Statement 

Before the midnight deadline and the next phase of this increasingly geopolitical drama, there is the rather more prosaic matter of the Spring Statement. 

In his first Spring Budget, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, decided to flip the Autumn Statement and the Budget and defang the statement. He did so to avoid the economically disruptive and often politically motivated practice of having two major annual fiscal events. 

So we now have our first of these diminished Spring statements and, despite unexpectedly good fiscal figures, the Chancellor is expected to stick to his guns. He is set only to announce new economic forecasts and the odd review to report in time for the Autumn Budget – the major one being into tapering the VAT threshold. 

The end of austerity? 

The Chancellor should emerge from today relatively unruffled, but the calls in the last few weeks for an easing of/end to austerity are only a fraction of what they will likely be, come the Budget. 

Rachel Sylvester gives a taster of that thinking, arguing that the Tories need to “tackle the new robber barons” or risk handing over No.10 to Corbyn. And such sentiments are growing within the party; even big beasts such as Boris Johnson are pushing for money for the NHS. 

Another way 

Britain was early to join the austerity club, and it has now been in it for longer than most countries – even as the global trend shifts. While the US may be playing it a bit wild with its new stimulus, other big Western economies, notably Canada, are combining fiscal discipline with increased capital spending. 

With the UK’s debt to GDP ratio well above 80 per cent, the room for manoeuvre isn’t large. Yet capital expenditure was cut heavily by George Osborne to meet his targets, and with the UK’s current budget now in surplus, boosting infrastructure investment might be the most fiscally responsible way of meeting the political challenge to austerity. 

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