One point of note was rather lost amid the fallout from the round of axed and suspended projects announced by the government yesterday.
As he announced the decision to kill off £2bn worth of projects, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander claimed that in addition to these cuts, he had discovered “billions of pounds of spending commitments … that relied upon underspends or access to the reserve.”
He said that it turned out the underspends and the contingency in the reserves were insufficient to meet these spending commitments.
The result? At least £1bn of further cuts to be announced in next week’s emergency Budget.
In the absence of evidence to the contrary, let’s assume that he’s telling the truth with all this. Let’s assume that Labour made extra spending commitments without having the money to pay for them. Surely he has no option but to swing the axe once more, right?
Wrong. Allow the Chief Secretary to explain:
“As far as the reserve is concerned, I’m sure the House will agree our priority is that we keep this for genuine emergencies and new pressures that may result from military operations in Afghanistan.”
It would have been understandable if the government wanted to keep a reserve ready for genuine “genuine emergencies” – another economic crisis (perhaps triggered by the cuts?) or unprecedented flooding. These are emergencies. We get it.
Instead, the government is lining up at least £1bn of further spending cuts – on top of all the other cuts it had planned – so that it can bail out the military following the next calamity in Kabul. Spending cuts so that we can continue to fund this failed, discredited and unwanted nine-year quagmire. Spending cuts to vital services, just to keep Hamid Karzai in a job.
Let’s go back to the first of the nine tests David Cameron set out this month to determine what the government should fund – is the activity essential to meet government priorities? Despairingly, most MPs still convince themselves that the Afghan war passes this test. The £1bn-plus cuts coming next week are just the latest price.
The government could take this reserve and spend it on public services here. But instead, the cuts must continue.
So, keep your eye out next Tuesday for George Osborne’s Karzai cuts. And then close your eyes and pretend that it’s all in a worthwhile cause.