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12 April 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:23pm

The Conservatives’ austerity problem isn’t Corbyn. It’s Cameron

All of the cuts to voters outside the Tory electoral coalition have been made.

By Stephen Bush

Labour have announced an eye-catching new policy: free bus travel for the under-25s. As Jonn notes, the Conservative response risks making that party look indifferent at best and actively hostile to young people at worst, but it also speaks to their bigger public spending problem.

One reason why sustained public spending cuts since 2010 have been electorally if not economically successful is that for most people, they happened to someone else, and for the Conservative electoral coalition, they barely registered at all. The biggest and boldest cut for the groups that delivered electoral advances in 2010 and 2015 was the de facto scrapping of child benefit for people earning above £50,000 a year. (Sensibly, politically speaking, they did this very early on in the life of the coalition.)

And for the most reliable pillar of Tory electoral success since 2010 – the retired – austerity basically hasn’t happened at all. The only Labour-era reduction in poverty to have survived intact the past eight years is pensioner poverty. That speaks to an electoral truth that has played itself out across the democratic world since the crash:  the only way to win sustained political support for public spending cuts is not to deliver them.

Although it wasn’t the only undercurrent in 2017, one of Theresa May’s mistakes was trying to make the reduction in public spending more “fair” by making the future burden of austerity more equal across the age distribution, by cutting back on some of the state spending on the retired. This backfired, as some pensioners defected to other parties, and others stayed home.

But May’s mistake didn’t occur in isolation: one of the reasons that George Osborne failed in his plan to close the deficit by 2015 was that he backed away from cuts that imperiled the Conservative electoral coalition (the retired, dual-earner above-average income couples, and motorists), which meant that David Cameron was re-elected but with his “mission” to cut spending and the share of state spend as a proportion of a GDP at best half-finished.

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But as Osborne and his successor as Chancellor, Philip Hammond, rapidly found, the remaining areas left to cut – tax credit cuts, the government’s ongoing difficulties over free school meals and the spending departments – or any possible tax rises – Hammond’s attempt to increase taxes on the self-employed – are all politically impossible with the small parliamentary majority Cameron won in 2015 and are even moreso with the no parliamentary majority May got in 2017. 

And reaching the end of the politically easy reductions in state spending is a far bigger problem for Conservative deficit targets than any single rhetorical problem.