May will end not austerity, but middle-class austerity. The question is whether that's enoughby Chaminda Jayanetti / October 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham. Photo: PA Theresa May’s conference speech signalling the end of austerity no doubt came as news to those millions of people labouring under a decade of cuts to benefits, social care, education spending and the NHS. After all, it is not the first time the end of austerity has been sounded—and still it has rumbled on, resembling not May’s unfulfilled pledge to tackle “burning injustices,” but David Cameron’s commitment to a permanently shrunk state. This time, do they mean it? There are obvious challenges. One is her own party: many Tory MPs want the government to start spending on key services in the wake of last year’s election fright, but far fewer are willing to countenance higher taxes to pay for it. Then there is her miserly chancellor Philip Hammond. Trying to force a more expansive agenda past the dead hand of the Treasury’s ‘sound money’ obsessives will be a difficult task. And Brexit presents a threat to the economy that could sweep away all talk of more spending. Does she mean it? May herself is not an ideological austerian in the mould of Cameron. Her Conservatism is that of the cultural traditionalist rather than a city slicker lying awake at night wondering how to privatise their own grandad. Indeed, she fired Hammond’s predecessor George Osborne for being too wedded to austerity, back when her premiership resembled a Maggie Thatcher tribute act rather than a particularly neurotic blancmange. Equally however, she is no universalist. In the same speech, she returned to the old Tory trope of “hard working” households, implicitly shutting out those unable to work for whatever reason—the people rhetorically targeted by the Tories for the last decade. But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that she both means it and can deliver it. Even then, many observers doubt it can rescue the Tories’ cratering appeal among working-age voters. A common view, on both Right and Left, is that the Conservatives ‘need’ austerity to give themselves a governing purpose. Without it, what is the point of them? What is their narrative, if it is not fixing the deficit? Free market ideologues demand the party set fire to the social state. Corbynites bask in their opponents’ identity crisis. Why would people vote for modest spending under the Tories when Labour offers the ‘full fat’ option? But this misreads what voters actually want. It is perhaps true that oppositions need narratives—Ed Miliband’s retail offer fell flat, whilst Corbyn’s better-framed manifesto raked in votes. But governments don’t need a ‘story’ to tell—it is enough for an incumbent to point to a solid economy and a safe pair of hands and ask the voters: “Do you want us or that shambles over there?” It worked for John Major in 1992 and Tony Blair in 2001 and 2005. It’s unexciting, but it’s enough. And that’s the key word: “enough.” Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are promising an increasingly radical transformation of the economy. Do voters want that? Or, if given the choice, will they settle for more money for schools? May is not pitching a fiscal arms race with Labour. She is not concerned with scrapping the two-child benefit limit or bringing Sure Start back to life. Her offer to the voters, if she can force it past the Treasury, is likely to deliver money to schools, hospitals, maybe defence and the police—but little else. Whilst Labour stretches every sinew to find money to reverse a near-decade of cuts to benefits and means-tested social care, May will end not austerity, but middle-class austerity. She will pledge enough money to keep A&E units standing, enough teachers to keep class sizes in check, enough police to get violent crime off the front page of the Daily Mail. Enough for Middle England to get by. The forthcoming Budget will be the first of many flashpoints. Hammond has been tasked, somewhat reluctantly, with finding £20bn extra for the NHS. Even if he does manage that in a manner acceptable to Tory MPs—easier said than done—Labour will point to every cut that continues, or is left un-reversed, as evidence that austerity is not over, that it’s business as usual. Same old Tories, same old story. But rhetoric matters less than reality, especially if a general election is many years away. People will judge the government by their experience of their children’s school, their local hospital, and the money in their pocket. This latter aspect could prove the most dangerous of all. Does the government know what Universal Credit will do to the incomes of low-paid workers? DWP ministers and civil servants seem impervious to the warnings coming from all directions. The migration of workers from tax credits to the new welfare system is a disaster looming in the middle-distance. Both parties are toxic: the Tories because of Brexit and austerity, Labour because of Corbyn. Whoever detoxifies the most will win the next election. May is setting out her stall: the worst is over, we’ll look after the middle classes, Corbyn is dangerous. Perhaps Middle England only gives a damn about itself, but it is very good at giving a damn about itself. May will not promise the world, but she will hope that “enough” is enough.