Big-budget projects under threat as Jeremy Hunt seeks to fill £40billion black hole
The departure of Liz Truss has done little to calm the nerves within Whitehall. Staff members had spent much of the previous week nervously monitoring budgets as Jeremy Hunt sought to balance the books.
Officials know that no matter who occupies Downing Street in the coming days, one inescapable truth persists: the Chancellor’s proposed ‘tempting’ spending cuts remain firmly in the Treasury’s sights.
A £40bn black hole will need to be funded and Hunt demanded that departments in Whitehall come up with plans to cut spending by up to 15%.
Among the lowest of all low hanging fruits is the UK’s £40billion R&D budget, the foundation of Dominic Cummings’ dream of making post-Brexit Britain the science capital of the world. science and technology.
Shortly after his appointment, Hunt said he cared “very much” about research expenses but had not pledged to protect them in full.
“Jeremy has gone out of his way to say he absolutely ‘understands’ and supports science and technology,” said George Freeman, the former science minister. “He also had to be very clear that there are very difficult decisions to be made.”
“I am very concerned that the Treasury may conclude that political pressure means there is very little room to find savings on pensions, petrol, social protection or defence, and there is a real risk Treasury ministers say ‘we’ve hit the 2.4% of GDP target’ and announce a £10-12bn cut to Horizon’s R&D budget.
Hetan Shah, chief executive of the British Academy, shares Freeman’s fears: “Our biggest concern is the new funding that will allow us to either partner with the Horizon Europe program or develop a local alternative.”
Horizon Europe is the EU’s £80 billion flagship research programme. Last year, Brussels blocked the UK from the scheme, but ministers said funds already pledged by the scheme would be protected.
Concerns over funding for innovation intensified after the Office for National Statistics revealed the UK may have met its target of spending 2.4% of GDP on research five years earlier. A report in September said the UK had understated national R&D spending by £15 billion.
“R&D could be on the cards,” says one lobbyist. “We have technically already reached the target of 2.4% of GDP. »
A second lobbying source says they believe the £800m Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria), dreamed up by Cummings as a way to cement the UK’s position as a scientific superpower , will be spared. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the business secretary, is said to be personally promoting the effort. “It’s right up her street,” the source said.
Plans for the Department for Transport, which with an annual budget of £30billion is responsible for the government’s largest capital expenditure, are also at risk.