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The Grenfell Tower fire has turned a spotlight on austerity's limits

After seven years of spending cuts, the UK's frayed public realm cannot be disguised.

After the coalition’s austerity programme began in 2010, cabinet ministers would often boast of its success. The government, they would say, was managing to do “more with less”. In 2013, at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, David Cameron went as far as to declare that it was his mission to create a “leaner, more efficient state ... not just now, but permanently”.

But one no longer hears such doctrinaire rhetoric from ministers. In 2017, the UK still has a budget deficit of £52bn (one not due be eliminated until 2025 – a decade later than promised) and austerity’s costs are increasingly visible. Though recent tragedies, such as the horrific Grenfell Tower fire and the London Bridge attack, cannot be directly attributed to cuts, they have focused attention on the fraying of the public realm.

“If you cut local authority expenditure then the price is paid somehow,” Jeremy Corbyn said of the Grenfell fire (in which at least 17 have died and many more are missing), noting the failure to install a sprinkler system and to overhaul fire safety regulations.

Residents say they sought to obtain legal advice over safety concerns but were prevented from doing so by cuts to legal aid (the Ministry of Justice says an approach was never made). Other tower block residents, many of them among London's poorest, have been anxiously contacting MPs for fear of a similar fate.

Though fire crews were quick to arrive at the Kensington tower block (engines were there six minutes after being alerted), the effects of cuts were visible. “Put it this way, you’re meant to work on a fire for a maximum of four hours, we’ve been here for 12,” said one firefighter.

Recent Home Office figures show there are nearly 7,000 fewer firefighters in England than five years ago, leading to longer response times and a 25 per cent fall in the number of fire prevention visits. Though the number of fire-related deaths has fallen from 750 a year in the early 1980s to 264 in 2015, it last year rose to 303.

Just as Theresa May accused the Police Federation of “scaremongering” over the risks of police cuts in 2015, so Boris Johnson told a Labour opponent to “get stuffed” in 2013 when confronted over fire service cuts. But the fear that emergency services can bear no further reductions is now widespread. During the general election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn successfully challenged May on her home turf of security by highlighting an 18,991 reduction in overall police numbers, and a 1,337 reduction in armed police numbers.

The central government grant to local authorities has been progressively eroded since 2010, forcing some to impose cuts of 80 per cent. The consequences are visible to all in unrepaired roads, uncollected bins and closed libraries, gyms and children's centres.

A recent survey of councils by the Local Government Information Unit found that three-quarters had little or no confidence in their financial sustainability, and more than one in ten believed they were in danger of failing to deliver legally required services. More than 40 per cent of local authorities anticipated making cuts in frontline services, "which will be evident to the public", rising to 71 per cent among social care authorities.

Many Conservative MPs attribute their party’s underperformance to public anger over strained schools and hospitals. Though May has broken with austerity in rhetoric, she has not in practice.

The public sector pay cap of 1 per cent and the freeze in working-age benefits (including tax credits) until 2020 have been maintained. The extra £8bn promised by the Conservatives for the NHS would still lead to a £12bn funding gap according to the Health Foundation. School spending per pupil would fall by 3 per cent between 2017-18 and 2021-22.

In both political and policy terms, austerity has reached its limits. Thoughtful Conservatives, such as May’s former aide Nick Timothy and Tory policy board chair George Freeman, recognised the Brexit vote as a symptom of national discontent. But the Prime Minister failed to take the opportunity to break with austerity in deed, rather than merely word. Will multiple crises now force her to do so?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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My son is shivering – precisely the response you want from a boy newly excited by drama

I can only assume theatre is in his blood, but not from my side of the family.

I went to the National Theatre last week to see, not a full production, but a reading of a play – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, directed by, and starring, the writer himself. The pre-publicity described the play as a “big, bold and riotous look at gender, drag and fabulousness”, in which “the House of Light competes with the House of Diabolique for drag family supremacy at the Cinderella Ball”. It lived up to this thrilling billing, transcending the modest expectations of a “read-through” and bursting into vivid life on the stage. The audience, less subdued, less thoroughly straight and white than a standard West End theatre crowd, rose to the occasion, whooping their approval and leaping to their feet at the end in a genuinely rousing and moved ovation.

It was a great evening, and came hot on the heels of another success only two weeks ago, when Ben and I took our youngest to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The boy is only 16, and freshly into drama, so it felt risky taking him to a new play. But we needn’t have worried. The piece is visceral and physical, set in County Armagh in 1981; against the backdrop of the hunger strikes, it tells a story of the long reach of the IRA, and even though the boy needs some of the history explaining to him, when I turn to him at the end of the final, shocking scene, he says: “I am actually shivering.” Which is presumably the precise response you would want to get out of a 16-year-old boy, poised on the brink of being excited about drama.

But theatre isn’t always exciting, is it? Let’s be honest. Ben and I have slunk out of too many intervals, bored witless by something flat and stagey, so I chalk these two latest experiences up as something of a triumph.

I didn’t even know the boy was so into theatre until I saw him on stage this year in a school production of Enron. He only had a small part, but still had to come to the very front of the stage, alone in a spotlight, and deliver a monologue in a Texan accent. And seeing him out of context like this, I nearly fell off my seat with the jolt of dislocation, almost not recognising him as my own son. Who knew he could do a Texan accent? (He’d practised for hours in the bathroom, he told me later.) And when did he get so tall? And so handsome? I see him every day and yet all I could think, seeing him up there on stage, was: “Who on earth IS this lanky six footer with the Hollywood smile, making eye contact and connecting with the audience in a way I never could in 20 years of gigs?”

I can only assume it is in his blood, and has come from Ben’s side of the family. Ben was studying drama at Hull when I met him; indeed the first time I saw him with his clothes off was on stage, in a production of The Winter’s Tale where the director, somewhat sadistically I thought, lined up a chorus of young men to be dancing satyrs, and made them strip down to nothing but giant codpieces. We’d only just started dating, so it was quite the introduction to my new boyfriend’s body.

Theatre was in his blood, too, inherited from his mother, and he was always confident on stage, enjoying the presence and feedback of an audience, which is why he still plays live and I don’t. His mother had been an actress, performing with John Gielgud and co at the Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, until her career was cut short by having a child, and then triplets. At her funeral a couple of years ago we listened to a recording of her RADA audition from the 1940s, in which she performed one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, her cut-glass English tones, declamatory and dramatic, in many ways every bit as fabulous and flamboyant as the drag queens in Wig Out!, whose theatricality she would have adored. She loved the stage, and she loved fame, and when it couldn’t be hers she revelled instead in mine and Ben’s, keeping every press cutting, wearing all the T-shirts, coming to every back-stage party. If it couldn’t be the spotlight, then the wings would do, darling.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder