Cameron's declaration that the cuts are permanent reveals the Tories' true agenda

The PM's vision of a permanently "leaner" state is a grim prospect for those reliant on public services and the welfare state to maintain an adequate standard of living.

When he entered office in 2010, committed to the largest programme of public service cuts since 1945, David Cameron exerted much effort in seeking to prove that the cuts were not "ideological" but an unavoidable response to the largest deficit in peacetime history. As I noted at the time, he declared in his 2010 New Year message:  

I didn't come into politics to make cuts. Neither did Nick Clegg. But in the end politics is about national interest, not personal political agendas. We're tackling the deficit because we have to – not out of some ideological zeal. This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country's problems, not by ideology.

But in his speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet last night, Cameron unambiguously abandoned this argument. He told the audience: 

We are sticking to the task. But that doesn't just mean making difficult decisions on public spending. It also means something more profound. It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently.

Far from being reversed once the structural deficit has been eliminated, the cuts are likely to continue. They are a matter of choice, not necessity. 

Cameron justified this approach by pointing to the allegedly superior outcomes achieved by austerity: "There are 40 per cent fewer people working in the Department for Education - but over 3,000 more free schools and academies, with more children doing tougher subjects than ever before. There are 23,000 fewer administrative roles in the NHS - but 5,000 more doctors, with shorter waiting times. So you can have a leaner, more efficient, more affordable state that actually delivers better results for the taxpayer."

Yet both schools and the NHS have had their budgets ring-fenced; the measures Cameron refers to are spending switches, rather than spending reductions. But even if he chose his examples rather poorly, the PM's intervention has redefined the terms of the austerity debate. 

By making it clear that he believes the government can do "more with less", Cameron has paved the way for a dramatic reduction in the size of the state. For those reliant on public services and the welfare state to maintain an adequate standard of living, it is a foreboding prospect. Having already announced £21.8bn of social security cuts, Cameron will seek to go even further should the Tories secure another term in office. The 1 per cent cap on benefit and tax credit increases (a real-terms reduction) is likely to be extended beyond 2015-16, child benefit limited to two children and the total benefit cap of £26,000 reduced to around £20,000 (a measure that would increase child poverty by hundreds of thousands). The PM may describe this as "efficiency", but those who feel the sharp end of the cuts are likely to find another word. 

David Cameron prepares to deliver his speech in the Guildhall during The Lord Mayor's Banquet in London last night. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.