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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle