Theresa May has promised what neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband ever did: the end of austerity. But delivering it will be a different matter.
At today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Jeremy Corbyn alighted on the gap between Conservative rhetoric and reality. In contrast to May, he noted, the Tory leader of Walsall council had warned that austerity was still “alive and kicking” (local government funding has been cut by 49 per cent since 2010).
The Prime Minister affirmed that after “a decade of austerity people need to know that their hard work has paid off and because of their sacrifices there are better days ahead” (May’s mere use of the word austerity – traditionally denounced by Tories as a pejorative for fiscal responsibility – distinguishes her from Cameron).
But she refused to confirm that no one would be “worse off” under Universal Credit – as Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey has warned (3.2 million low-income households are set to lose an average of £2,500 a year) – and ignored Corbyn’s demand for the restoration of nurse bursaries (as the Labour leader noted, the number of students applying for training has fallen by 16,000 and there are 40,000 vacancies).
May, as is traditional, sought to cast Labour as profligate, alleging that the party’s plans would cost £1trn (Philip Cowley, the author of the book from which the claim is taken, explains how the Conservatives have distorted it here).
But the problem for the Prime Minister is that tax and spend is precisely what the public want. The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey found that 60 per cent favour higher taxes and spending (the highest level in 15 years), 33 per cent support present levels and a mere 4 per cent wish to further roll back the state (libertarianism is, by some distance, the loneliest ideology in British politics).
In the absence of significant tax rises, May’s commitment to reduce the national debt as a share of GDP means spending restraint will endure. And even should austerity eventually be ended, the problem for the Tories is that, after nearly a decade of cuts, it may take years before the public feel the benefits (even without another recession). By nevertheless insisting that the sunlit uplands are within reach, May has gifted Corbyn an evergreen attack line.