Analysis: Make the Tories suffer for the mismatch between rhetoric and reality on ending austerity

Ben Wray

CommonSpace editor Ben Wray analyses the politics of the Budget – can the party of ‘the age of austerity’ really sell a new Corbyn-lite image?

THE Chancellor is increasing the deficit. That is the consequence of the £30 billion in new spending commitments to 2023-24 announced at today’s [29 October] Budget.

It’s not a big rise in the deficit, but the days of Osbornomics appear to be behind us. Not, though, the age of austerity, despite what Theresa May may say.

Let’s remember that the 2015 Tory General Election manifesto promised to ‘balance the books’ by the end of that term in government, which was set to be 2020. The budget surplus rule was then pushed back to 2023/24. Now it’s gone all together.

Philip Hammond’s message to the British people was “their hard work is paying off and the era of austerity is finally coming to an end”. That was a watered down version of the Prime Minister’s “austerity is over” claim at the Tory party conference earlier this month. The difference is not insignificant.

READ MORE – #Budget2018 reaction: Richard Murphy, Craig Dalzell, Poverty Alliance, Inclusion Scotland + more

Hammond and May appear to be at loggerheads. Whereas the Chancellor was briefing that the spending commitments made today could all be up in smoke if there was no Brexit deal, May told the press that they would stick even in the event of the dreaded No Deal. The Chancellor wants to use the Budget to apply political pressure on hard line Brexiteers, whereas May wants to set a new course on the domestic agenda which, she hopes, can position her in the centre-ground for the next General Election.

Whether she ever gets close to seeing another General Election campaign once the debacle of Brexit is done is highly questionable. Even if she gets through Brexit intact, would Tory MPs trust her against Corbyn after the disastrous 2017 General Election campaign?

If May is kicked out of 10 Downing Street long before 2022, the new line of austerity being over will likely hold regardless, because is not a product of her personal tastes but political reality. After eight years, austerity fatigue kicled in long ago, and is turning into austerity anger. The politics of austerity (and it was always about politics) has moved from green to red on the political balance sheet. If it is Boris Johnson who fights the next election for the Tories, it will be on this new ground of the end of austerity that the war with Labour will be conducted.

This is, of course, the politics of triangulation, which was supposed to be of an era banished to the history books in the age of Trump and, now, Bolsonaro. Whereas triangulation was a Blairite move, now it’s the Tories seeking a land grab on Corbyn’s territory, realising that although he may have little to say about Brexit, a lot of people in Britain put the issues of healthcare, education and the fact their living standards appear to be in permanent decline above the constitution in their electoral check list.

READ MORE – Analysis: May vows ‘austerity is over’ – but should we believe her?

It’s easy to see why the Tories have moved on to this turf, but it’s harder to see how it ends well for them. Just as voters backed David Cameron rather than Ed Miliband because ‘why have austerity-lite rather than the real thing?’, the same is true in reverse – everyone knows Corbyn will end austerity because he means it, whereas no ones ever seen May holding an anti-cuts placard. In the anti-austerity authenticity stakes, Corbyn wins hands down.

The other problem May faces is that the mismatch between declaring the end of austerity and what people feel in their rents, welfare payments, wages and bank balance is going to jar. She has  a serious end of austerity legitimacy problem. Hammond’s Budget measures will not reverse £7 billion in welfare cuts which are still scheduled. The OBR forecasts growth to still be stagnant by 2023, running at about 1.5 per cent ever year between now and then. No one in Britain is going to be feeling like the good times are back by the time the next General Election rolls around.

The other measures announced in the Budget on public services are just Corbyn-lite: an extra £8.4 billion for the NHS is a lot of money, but compared to what it needs it isn’t likely to end the healthcare crisis; headteachers will be rolling their eyes at 400 million for school “extras”; a £38 billion increase in public infrastructure investment by 2023 is a decent whack compared to the UK’s chronically low rates of public investment, but it’s not close to John McDonnell’s £500 billion infrastructure investment plan.

And on public infrastructure, the announcement that there will be no more PFI and PF2 contracts is positive, but Hammond re-committed to paying out existing PFI contracts forever more. Again, there’s no one in the UK thinking the Tories are going to out anti-PFI Jeremy Corbyn, regardless of the fact that it was a Labour invention and 90 per cent of the contracts were signed under Labour. All this does politically is bring attention to the fact that Corbyn is leader of the party for the precise purpose of having a clean break with the New Labour-PFI days.

READ MORE: Disabled Scots rage against Universal Credit and austerity as flagship Tory policy crashes

As Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network activist Sarah Glynn pointed out in our Budget reaction round-up, Hammond’s reforms to Universal Credit do not go nearly far enough to fix that disaster, and may just bring more attention to it.

As for Scotland, the Budget means an extra £950 million for Finance Minister Derek Mackay to play with when he announces his Budget in December. Mackay was quick to point out that the Scottish Government’s budget is still about £2 billion less than it was 2010/11, but nonetheless the extra billion will come in handy with mounting political pressure over the NHS and Education. 30,000 teachers marching through Glasgow on Saturday ^27 October* for a 10 per cent pay rise is not something the Scottish Government can take lightly.

The detail of Britain’s public finances are on shifting sands with the Brexit negotiations still in motion. This time next year things will probably look very different. But whatever happens with Brexit, the narrative around ending austerity appears to be locked in. It’s going to be no easy task for the party that declared the age of austerity to sell themselves as the leaders of its end, but the Tories now have no choice but to give it a go.

The task for campaigners is to close the gap between the politics of ending austerity and the reality, since the Tories have officially given up on any ideological justification for cuts.

Picture courtesy of Roger Blackwell