The opening years of this parliament provided few opportunities for the self-congratulation that comes so naturally to the present generation of Conservative politicians. The economy barely grew, the NHS was left in chaos by Andrew Lansley’s reforms and the coalition government’s promise of a “new politics” was tainted by repeated scandals.
But in recent weeks a mood of triumphalism has taken hold in the Parliamentary Conservative Party and among its press supporters. In the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the summer recess, David Cameron declared: “The deficit is down, unemployment is falling, crime is down, welfare is capped and Abu Qatada is back in Jordan. Every day this country is getting stronger and he [Ed Miliband] is getting weaker.”
And yet, by any reasonable measure, the coalition’s record remains one of failure, even on its own terms. The economic recovery of which ministers boast is the slowest in more than 100 years, with GDP nearly 4 per cent below its pre-recession peak. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus, the economy is 3.2 per cent larger than in 2007 after growth four times greater than that of the UK. And rather than rebalancing the economy away from debt-driven consumption and towards investment and exports, as was promised and was desirable in 2010, George Osborne appears intent on creating another housing bubble through his Help to Buy scheme, which will reflate demand without addressing the problem of supply.
The headline fall in unemployment, which remains unacceptably high at 2.51 million (7.8 per cent), masks the sharp rise in so-called underemployment, with a record 1.45 million people in part-time jobs because they are unable to work full-time. To compound this, long-term unemployment has reached a 17-year high of 915,000 and youth unemployment is at 959,000 (20.9 per cent). That total joblessness has not risen to the heights experienced in the 1980s owes more to workers’ willingness to price themselves into employment (real wages have fallen by a remarkable 9 per cent) than the success of the government’s strategy. To voters enduring the greatest squeeze in living standards in recent history, ministers offer scapegoats – “welfare dependants”, “health tourists”, “troubled families”. In the meantime, Britain’s core problems, such as its economic short-termism, its lack of social mobility and its extreme income inequality, remain largely unaddressed.
As global competition intensifies, the UK needs a government that, as well as encouraging enterprise and enabling small businesses to flourish, will be prepared to use the state innovatively to promote balanced growth, that is capable of maintaining old international alliances and forging new ones, and that can revive a sense of national purpose of a kind that, for now, is largely absent.