May will end not austerity, but middle-class austerity. The question is whether that's enoughby Chaminda Jayanetti / October 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
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?
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