Horse-tank row dominates Britain’s austerity debate

Horse-tank row dominates Britain’s austerity debate

LONDON - Reuters
Horse-tank row dominates Britain’s austerity debate

When Osborne suggested that the army should cut spending because it had more horses than tanks, he provoked an indignant public response. REUTERS photo

As Britain prepares to say who will take the pain for more cuts, the row over ceremonial horses versus tanks shows just how hard it is to trim the size of a state that the government says has been overspending for years.

While the cuts have upset some voters and stoked tensions among senior members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government, the debt mountain is still rising and Britain has lost its prized triple-A credit rating for the first time since it received the rating in 1978.

For finance minister George Osborne, the row over Britain’s military horses shows the political dangers and limits of austerity just as he puts the finishing touches to his spending review announcement due on June 26.

“In a department that has more horses than it has tanks, there are room for efficiency savings without affecting our overall military output,” said Danny Alexander, Osborne’s cabinet-level deputy at the Treasury.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense said it had about 500 horses compared to around 350 tanks.
 The horses are used in ceremonial events such as the opening of parliament and the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday. In what will be the fourth year since he took power promising deep spending cuts, Osborne reached deals with ministers including Hammond to secure 11.5 billion pounds ($17.70 billion) of further cuts in 2015-2016. The fate of the horses was not immediately clear.

When Osborne arrived at the offices of the Treasury following the 2010 election, his deputy had been left a note by departing Labour treasury chief secretary Liam Byrne saying: “I’m afraid there’s no money left.” Osborne faced a budget deficit of 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and the UK gilt market was, in the words of Pimco’s Bill Gross, the manager of the world’s biggest bond fund, “resting on a bed of nitroglycerine” because debt was far too high. The British state is still spending about 120 billion pounds more than it receives each year. Public sector net debt is forecast to peak at 85.6 percent of GDP in 2016-17.