(This is the second of a series of comments I’ll be making addressing different aspects of SR2013 over the next few days)
SR 2013 has been agreed, we are told today. And some are claiming it was all settled amicably in the end (see Benedict Brogan at the Telegraph), without even having to convene the so-called “Star Chamber” to bring the last ‘hold-outs’ (Vince Cable, Theresa May and Phillip Hammond) to heal.
The “Star Chamber” name derives from an early court of last appeal, dating back to the 13th century. The modern version is an ad-hoc Cabinet sub-committee which would in theory adjudicate on any remaining disputes between spending Ministers and the Chancellor. It has been around in Whitehall for years and more of a phantom menace than a reality, because it has rarely ever convened.
The fact it hasn’t around this “Spending Review” is due to one of two things (or more likely both). First, the ‘hold-outs’ were really just signalling to their respective camps that they tough, leaderly, sort of people who weren’t going to pushed around by the likes of George Osborne and Danny Alexander. They had no intention of going to the wall, and certainly not any ‘Star Chamber’, over it. Second, everyone knows that this ‘Spending Review’ is a bit of a farce anyway. It is mainly, as the BBC’s Nick Robinson pointed out this morning, a bit of a George ‘Baldrick’ Osborne “cunning plan” to force Labour into a corner.
Incidentally there are uncanny parallels here. Ken Clarke has admitted that when he was Chancellor his forward projections for public spending in his March 1997 Budget were just there to justify Conservative tax policies and were completely unrealistic. Then, the Labour leadership of Blair and Brown pledged to stick to Tory spending plans and indeed did – driving public spending down to its lowest level as a proportion of GDP in 50 years.
What was rather less ‘phantom’ about this Spending Review was the turf wars it has sparked in Whitehall. We have had – amongst others – DCLG trying to raid the DWP and Education budgets for ‘problem families’; the MOD trying to raid the DFID budget of ‘humanitarian’ military work; DCLG, again, trying to raid Health for social care money; BIS bidding for DCMS funds; and so on. Whilst there’s always a bit of this sort of ‘turf war’, the levels of animosity and the size of the prospective raids began to look like another 13th century tradition – the Border Reivers who raided each others lands along the Anglo-Scottish borders.
The size of the continued austerity drive means that these sorts of border raids are unlikely to subside any time soon – SR2013 settlement not with-standing.