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21 May 2022

Austerity was never popular, it just happened to other people

The problem for the Conservatives is that the cost-of-living crisis is going to hit everyone, even if they’re Tory-inclined.

By Jonn Elledge

One of the most bafflingly wrong ideas to have taken hold of British politics this past decade – more wrong than the idea that George Osborne was a prime minister in waiting, or that there was ever an electoral constituency for Michael Gove – is the notion that austerity is popular.

People may have liked the idea of a smaller state, or a balanced budget. But, as should be obvious by now, those who favoured austerity only did so when it was for other people. Osborne’s dark political genius as chancellor was to find ways to gut the state – gouging chunks out of the budgets for local government or further education colleges, say – in a way that would either not trouble potential Tory voters, or would not be blamed on him if they did, all the while protecting those things (the NHS, pensions, house prices) they actually did care about.

It feels like some Tories have forgotten this equation – that they’ve started to believe the line that people voted Tory not despite but because of the sacrifices it would require the nation to make; that austerity was not merely the means, but an end in itself.

This, at least, would explain the string of MPs lining up to suggest that the blame for the cost-of-living crisis lies, if anything, with the voters. Most prominently, there’s rich-list member and tax-rise enthusiast Rishi Sunak, who genuinely seems to believe that his brief popularity was unrelated to his being The Guy Who Kept Handing Out Money. He’s since pivoted to austerity, with predictable results; I’ve been amusing myself imagining the crisis meeting at which his team debate what they could post on Instagram to get out of this hole.

Then there’s Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, who blamed the explosion in food-bank use on the fact that “we’ve got generation after generation who cannot cook properly [or] cannot budget.” He may or may not have had a point about our national adulting, but it’s difficult to see why it should recently have got so much worse.

Next up came the Home Office minister Rachel Maclean’s claim that the solution to the cost-of-living crisis is for people to “take on more hours” or move to a “better-paid job” – a comment that seems to ignore the possibility there might be limitations on the availability of good jobs or hours in the day, limitations that are beyond the power of the individual to solve.

It’s probably not quite fair to put Jackie Doyle-Price’s suggestion that the government could “incentivise granny annexes” in the same box, as she was clearly talking about both the housing and social care crises, not suggesting that we all deal with the cost-of-living crisis by de-mothballing the east wing, but it’s pretty cloth-eared all the same. In each of these cases a Tory MP has seemed to suggest that the public, in some way, deserves this, and I’m starting to wonder if confusion over what the voters actually want from their government is at least partly to blame.

(There’s one comment that we can’t blame on the government, but which I’m parenthesising here anyway because I’m so gobsmacked by it: Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, has more than once suggested that, in a bid to combat inflation, people should show restraint when asking for pay rises. Bailey would no doubt note that he has declined pay rises himself in an attempt to practice what he preaches. I would gently suggest that, with inflation running at 9 per cent, it’s easier to decline a pay rise when you’re already paid more than half a million pounds a year.)

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This government has done its bit to disprove James Carville’s 1992 aphorism that “it’s the economy, stupid” by presiding over a lost decade and winning, repeatedly, all the same. But the relevant economy is not the one measured in GDP and unemployment rates, but the one actually experienced by individual households. And while Britons of working age may have struggled these past few years, the Tories’ core vote – the asset-rich, or retirees on fixed incomes – have been protected.

The problem the party faces now is that the cost-of-living crisis is going to hit everyone, even if they’re normally inclined to vote Tory. Even if it’s possible to survive in the straightened circumstances the current squeeze creates, it isn’t going to be fun, and when life gets worse rather than better people tend to blame the government. It’s household budgets, stupid – no matter how many MPs publicly embarrass themselves trying to deny it.

[See also: Ranked: every patronising Conservative cost-of-living crisis survival tip]

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