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?