Can austerity be popular?

Tories climb to 42 per cent in first post-Budget poll -- but remember, the pain has barely begun.

Today's Sun/YouGov poll, the first since the Budget, is very good news for the Conservatives. It puts the Tories up 3 points to 42 per cent, the party's highest level of support since January, and shows that, with the exception of the VAT increase, all of the key measures are backed by voters. Meanwhile, Labour is unchanged on 34 per cent and the Lib Dems are down 2 to 17 per cent.

So is this proof that austerity can be popular (if not progressive)? Not necessarily. For a start, many tax and spending changes become unpopular only once they're implemented. Gordon Brown's abolition of the 10p tax threshold didn't become a political headache until the year after his final Budget. Voters often mistakenly assume that cuts to spending and benefits won't hurt "people like me".

The coalition is also still in its honeymoon period, a factor that influenced George Osborne's decision to announce the most painful measures now. At the same time, Labour, deprived of a permanent leader, has been unable to offer effective opposition to the coalition and has yet to establish a credible position on either the deficit or spending cuts.

But the Tories are certainly confident they can secure re-election in 2015. MPs point to a recent study by Ben Broadbent and Adrian Paul of Goldman Sachs which looked at the relationship between fiscal tightening and electoral support. The results suggested that, if anything, fiscal rentrenchment increases support for the governing party.

As Broadbent and Paul write: "The three governments that have executed the most high-profile expenditure-based deficit reductions -- Ireland in 1987, Sweden in 1994 and Canada in 1994 -- were all re-elected."

The other particular advantage for the Tories is that, unlike Kenneth Clarke et al in the 1990s, their fiscal retrenchment is taking place in the first term, rather than the fourth, of a Conservative government. It will be up to the next Labour leader to mount an effective, progressive case against the coalition -- the sheer impact of cuts alone won't do it.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.