Cameron's declaration that "money is no object" has destroyed his austerity message

By insisting that he will spend "whatever money is needed" on flood relief, Cameron has undermined his claim that austerity means we must tolerate rising homelessness and poverty.

It was just a few years ago that David Cameron was warning that Britain was "nearly bankrupt". The claim was, of course, nonsense. With its own currency, its own monetary policy and the ability to borrow at historically low rates, the UK was never at risk of insolvency. In extremis, the Bank of England could simply buy up government debt (as it has done through quantitative easing).

But the suggestion that Britain was bankrupt, or at least close to being so (Cameron often casually alternated between the two), was an immensely valuable means of justifying the coalition's austerity programme. Since 2010, Cameron has repeatedly invoked the deficit and the "tough choices" required to reduce it when confronted with the social and economic harm caused by the cuts to welfare and other government programmes.

Britain today is a country in which more than half a million people have turned to food banks since April 2013, in which homelessness has risen by 34 per cent since 2010, and in which, for the first time ever, there are more people from working families living in poverty (6.7 million) than from workless and retired ones (6.3 million). But Cameron has been able to justify all of this pain by presenting it as the tough medicine required to clear the country's debts. As yesterday's YouGov poll showed, 54 per cent of voters believe the cuts are "necessary", compared to just 30 per cent who believe they are unnecessary, a gap that has remained consistent throughout this parliament. 

But yesterday, during his Downing Street press conference on the floods, Cameron suddenly abandoned this austere message. "Money," he declared, "is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed, we will spend it." Many voters, not least those who have lost their homes to the floods, will appreciate the sentiment, but it prompts the question: if money is no object in the case of flooding, why is it an object in the case of homelessness, unemployment and poverty? Indeed, had he adopted such a generous stance from the start, and not cut real-terms spending on flood defences (what a false economy that has proved to be), Britain would have been far better prepared for the deluge than it was. 

During the same press conference, after being challenged to divert money from the foreign aid budget to flood relief schemes, he replied: "I don’t think it’s needed to go for the aid budget because we will make available the money that’s needed here in Britain. We are a wealthy country, we have a growing economy. If money is needed for clean-up, money will be made available." 

The decision of the Daily Mail, Nigel Farage and others to target foreign aid may be a cynical one (exploiting the misperception that it is one of the largest areas of government spending) but it is entirely consistent with the logic employed by Cameron since 2010: spending increases in one area must be matched by cuts elsewhere. 

Yet having once declared that there is "no magic money tree", the PM now gives entirely the reverse impression. The coalition would no doubt argue that the return of growth, with GDP rising at its fastest rate since the crisis, and the fall in the deficit (from £160bn in 2009-10 to £115bn in 2012-13) means that there is some spare cash around. But this ignores the scale of austerity that the government believes is still necessary and desirable. As the IFS noted last week, just 40 per cent of George Osborne's planned spending cuts have been delivered. Indeed, so wedded to austerity is Cameron, that he has argued it should continue even once the deficit has been eliminated. As he argud in his speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet last year:

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.

By now carelessly insisting that "money is no object", he has dramatically weakened the force of this message. 

David Cameron addresses the media during a press conference at 10 Downing Street yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.