David Cameron came to power promising to mend what he described as "broken Britain". But if Britain ever were to be broken, Cameron is starting to show us what it would look like. The student protests and rioting against the tripling of tuition fees have severely undermined the credibility of the Liberal Democrats, but should also concern the Conservatives.
A government that cannot control the streets of London is in trouble. But the vote was won, and the government, though perhaps not the Lib Dems, will get over it. What should really concern the government is that "jobless Britain" is already a reality before the cuts start to bite. The public backlash to that will make the student protests look like a picnic.
Several weeks ago, Office for National Statistics data showed that nationally there are already 2.6 claimants on average for every job vacancy. Taking data from more than 230 areas of Britain, they found that there are 1,359,282 unemployed claimants in Britain seeking a total of 521,729 job vacancies.
However, while historically poorer areas of Britain such as Scotland and the north-east are far above the average, Scotland having 3.9 claimants for each vacancy and the north-east 3.2, it is London that tops the list at 4.1 unemployed workers to every job vacancy. Meanwhile, Yorkshire and the Humber and Wales have 2.7 unemployed workers per vacancy. The south-east, east of England, East Midlands and south-west are below the national average.
But what is most concerning is the pattern of mass regional unemployment. For example, in four areas of Scotland – Campbeltown, Newton Stewart and Wigtown, Wick, and Gairloch and Ullapool – there are more than ten jobless people chasing each job. There are a further 14 areas, nine of which are in Scotland or Wales, where there are at least seven unemployed workers for each job.
The darling bloods of May
This situation is likely to get worse as the coalition presses ahead with its plans to sack 100,000 public-sector workers in 2011. With the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development predicting an increase in unemployment of at least 1 per cent in 2011, there is a grave risk that this contagion of areas with mass unemployment levels will spread across the rest of Britain, particular in those with a high proportion of public-sector workers.
Moreover, the data reveals that, before the cuts start in earnest, there is already an unemployment crisis in Britain, at a time when there is little evidence that the private sector will be able to create jobs. Indeed, there are only five areas of Britain where there are more job vacancies than unemployment claimants – Penrith and Appleby, Harrogate and Ripon, Andover, Kendal and Rugby.
The reality is that it is the economy, not tuition fees, which will make or break this government. Nick Clegg and his party have been wounded, perhaps mortally, by their tuition fee betrayal. They are now languishing at between 5 and 10 per cent in the polls, and their first dose of punishment will probably be meted out at the local elections in May.
But now attention and the story will shift to Cameron and Osborne. Were the student protests an aberration from normality, or merely the first act in a long drama of public unrest and anger? Is David Cameron a "compassionate conservative", or one hell-bent on taking Britain back to the divided nation of strikes, mass unemployment, private affluence and public squalor that it was in the 1980s? We will soon find out.
The IMF, the OECD and the OBR have all predicted sluggish growth and higher unemployment in 2011 and 2012. If the private sector cannot fill the gap left by public-sector job cuts, then, despite his undoubted class as a politician, and his assured and self-confident start as Prime Minister, David Cameron will see what "broken Britain" really looks like. If that happens, he will find himself, like John Major 15 years ago, "in office but not in power".
Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.