David Cameron has just told Jeremy Paxman that Northern Ireland is the top of the list of UK regions where the public sector is too big, with the North East of England coming second. Not exactly a new discovery this, but alarm bells should ring, as Cameron was being grilled about the size of public sector cuts he’d make over the next few years, if he becomes prime minister. He refused to give any figures or percentages beyond admitting to an extra £6 billion of cuts to be brought forward in his promised June emergency budget from next year. He also refused to say if he’d divert funding to help the private sector.
While he remained doggedly unspecific, he acknowledged that his cuts woud be more severe than Gordon Brown’s over the three years to 2014. Otherwise this was a floundering performance.
Cameron’s timing was not the best if he turns up in Belfast onMonday to support Reg and the lads standing under his banner. History has just been made. This is the first time I recall any senior British politician looking ahead to cuts in the Northern Ireland budget. I assume that Rodney Connor would not take the Tory whip on this occasion, if elected for FST. But the bigger question is : what would Sir Reg do? We should be told. I’m sure Peter Robinson would love to know.
If severe Tory cuts were proposed in a hung parliament, we’d soon find out the strength of Celtic solidarity in resisting them. Under pressure, would the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish hang together or fight separately? Of one thing we can be sure; the Barnett formula for allocating UK funding to the devolved institutions would come under greater pressure than ever before, as would their relations with Westminster.
Adds I see Michael Crick of Newsnight has caught up with me. He reports:
David Cameron has made a fairly serious error which could be exploited by his opponents. If I was fighting in one of his target seats in the north east I’d be pretty upset. Equally the Conservative Unionists in Northern Ireland will be pretty upset as well and it will be exploited by the DUP. In NI the public sector is 69% of the economy but also 69% in Wales where the Conservatives are doing well. If it’s too high in NI, is it too high in Wales and Scotland?
Paul Mason Newsnight’s economic editor adds:
It would be hard to hold a hung parliament together with cuts like that..
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London