The Vote Leave bus gets a makeover. Photo: Getty
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The £350m bus voters: did the Tories fail to win because they assumed austerity was the new normal?

Theresa May's team did not tell voters why continued austerity was necessary. At a time when the NHS and schools were overstretched, that was a crucial mistake. 

At this point, it feels slightly unkind to write about mistakes in the Tory campaign. But here's another one.

The Conservatives ran a campaign against the backdrop of squeezed public services and the prospect of cuts to schools, thanks to the new funding formula. But they never bothered to do what David Cameron and George Osborne did - tell voters why they couldn't have any more money for services they valued. The former prime minister and former Chancellor successfully laid the groundwork for cutting back the state by telling Britain that it was the only way out of the financial crisis, that Labour's "over spending" had left us dangerously exposed, and that if we didn't cut the deficit, we would end up a basketcase economy like Greece. The standout slogan from the 2015 election was the Conservatives' "long term economic plan".

However, that narrative was missing this time round. Amber Rudd talked at the second-tier leaders' debate about the "magic money tree" (or rather, its non-existence). But there was little mention of the deficit, or about any explanation of why our belts needed to remain tightened, or even any bad metaphors about credit cards. The financial crash is now a full decade ago, and voters - not unreasonably - feel that era of uncertainty and financial panic is over. So why, if everything is supposedly rosy, are schools sending home letters begging for donations from parents? Why are teachers facing the sack? (George Osborne must have seen this danger: his newspaper, the Evening Standard, ran a campaign against the new school funding formula.)

Part of this complacency springs from a misreading of last year's vote to leave the European Union. Although many voters were undoubtedly enthused about casting off the hated yokeTM of Brussels, a far greater number wanted to cut immigration, but only if it wouldn't cost too much money. (For Remain voters, the economy was the biggest issue, according to post-referendum polling. For Leavers, it was immigration.) The genius - or great lie - of Vote Leave was not just to neutralise those fears, but to go beyond them - to create the impression that less money sent to Brussels meant more money to be spent in Britain. That famous £350m a week, written on the side of a bus.

After 24 June, British voters found out that the extra £350m was in fact, more of an aspiration, and one which would not be available for years to come, if ever. At the same time, a narrative emerged in which Ukip and Conservative voters were primarily driven by immigration per se, when in fact immigration has always been interwoven with anxiety over jobs and the wider economy. ("Immigrants are driving down wages". "There's no jobs round here because they all go to Eastern Europeans".) 

And so the Conservatives went into the election promising to end freedom of movement, a promise which was matched by Labour, giving them little advantage on the issue of immigration with the voters for whom for that is a key issue. They tried to paint Labour as tax-hikers, but ostentatiously promised a tax hike of their own. And they forgot to make the case for austerity to everyone who worried about their local A&E closing or their local school losing teachers.

They assumed that austerity was the New Normal, and we had accepted it so thoroughly that the case for cutting back the state no longer needed to be made.

In short, they forget about the £350m Bus Voters.

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.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.