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Austerity regret – the new Tory gambit

Current and former Conservative cabinet ministers have started admitting that their past spending cuts went too far.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It feels like Conservative politicians talk more about austerity than Labour ones these days.

As Basketcase Britain reaches its chaotic zenith, it’s becoming impossible for even key players in the austerity governments to deny that the deep spending cuts from 2010 onwards partly led to today’s mess.

Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary and new-found friend of what in a past political life he might have called the “housing blob”, is the latest. In early April, he admitted mistakes over social housing cuts when the BBC revealed that a tenant was left dead in her flat for two and a half years.

After entering government in May 2010, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition abolished the Tenant Services Authority, the social housing regulator, as part of its “bonfire of the quangos”. Gove, who was in the cabinet at the time as education secretary, admitted he was now having to tighten regulations for this reason. “I think we can all now look back and consider some of the regulatory changes that were made in the past and reflect on whether or not they were right.”

In 2010, the coalition also abolished National Tenant Voice, a body set up by the last Labour government to give social housing tenants a say in national housing policy. When asked if this was a mistake, Gove replied “yes”, again conceding that he was trying to replace its role in representing tenants. 

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Gove is not alone. In recent times, a number of senior figures from the austerity years have criticised their own cuts. The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, who was health secretary under David Cameron, admitted to me last year that social care cuts “went too far” and had proved to be a “silent killer”.

David Gauke, who served as work and pensions secretary under Theresa May (and is now an NS columnist), told me in 2021 that his government had taken benefit cuts too far: “I think we were pushing the limit of how tight our welfare payments could be, in all honesty.”

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Steve Hilton, who was Cameron’s chief strategist from 2010-12, cited a UK study calculating “that 130,000 died avoidably from austerity [in the UK] between 2012 and 2017” in a 2020 interview. Upon leaving Downing Street, his parting advice to the prime minister was to make £25bn of welfare cuts, and dramatically reduce the size of the civil service.

Then there are all the implicit admissions that the cuts were destructive. Boris Johnson’s promise of 20,000 more police officers after his own party (while he was London mayor) cut 20,600 officers. Rishi Sunak’s “family hubs”: knock-off versions of Sure Start centres, of which more than a thousand were cut by the party on whose platform he was elected in 2015. The equivalent funding for “up to 200 local youth clubs opening an extra night a week” in places where antisocial behaviour is worst, after nearly 800 youth clubs were cut. Even hasty purchases of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic after stocks were not replenished due to budget squeezes.

What’s behind this soul-searching and regret? It’s not just the current wave of strikes and failing public services. Britons feel differently about the economy and state now. British Social Attitudes surveys and the New Statesman’s own polling have repeatedly shown a public demanding greater redistribution and better-funded public services. Most significantly, there is now a strong tendency to associate “the economy” with prices and wages rather than with the debt and deficit (which were more of a public preoccupation under Cameron).

Conservative politicians are aware of this. They sense the shift from their constituents, conversations with local councillors and party activists, and the kinds of campaign once-friendly newspapers are running. (The Telegraph’s clean rivers campaign, for instance, exposes Britain’s polluted waterways – and it was a Conservative government that cut environmental regulation a few years ago.)

While they stop short of arguing against austerity as a concept, ministers know that politically and logically they cannot defend individual cuts anymore. Regrets, they have a few – but they’ve been for the many to bear.

[See also: Will Michael Gove’s Right to Buy reforms mean more affordable housing?]

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