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.