By far the most significant policy announcement made by the Lib Dems at their conference is that the party will pledge to protect the NHS and schools from cuts after 2015. Nick Clegg suggested yesterday that both budgets should be ring-fenced until 2020 and Danny Alexander told the Today programme this morning:
We’ve said that we want to, as a party, maintain the commitments to the NHS in terms of keeping its budget protected in real terms, and also to the schools system.
Among other things, this is another snub to Vince Cable, a long-standing critic of ring-fencing. Before the recent Spending Review, he warned that shielding some departments from cuts and forcing others to endure even greater austerity was not "a very sensible" long-term approach. He said:
The problem about ring-fencing as an overall approach to policy, is that when you have 80 per cent of all government spending that’s ring-fenced, it means all future pressures then come on things like the army, the police, local government, skills and universities, the rest that I’m responsible for. So you get a very unbalanced approach to public spending.
But as in the case of Help To Buy and the future of the coalition, Clegg and Alexander have chosen to disregard Cable's advice.
It's also worth noting that the Lib Dems' pledge means that all three of the main parties are now likely to go into the next election promising to ring-fence the NHS. David Cameron and George Osborne havee long made it clear that they want to continue to protect the health budget ater 2015 and Ed Miliband told the BBC earlier this year: "We're not going to be cutting the health service, I'm very clear about that. We will always be protecting the health service and will always make it a priority."
Promising to shield the NHS from cuts is both good politics and good policy. Polls show that it is the most popular spending area with voters and the above-average rate of inflation in the health service means it frequently requires real-terms rises just to stand still. But it does mean all parties will be under greater pressure to say how they would continue deficit reduction without significant tax rises. Should the ring-fences around health, international development and schools spending remain, some departments will have had their budgets more than halved by the end of the programme, with a 64% cut to the Foreign Office, a 46% cut to the Home Office and a 36% cut to defence.