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7 September 2023

Raac crisis shows Britain’s malaise goes far deeper than inflation

The government is presiding over broken schools and a broken country.

By Freddie Hayward

The scandal over aerated concrete (Raac) continues to undermine the government’s attempt to shape the political agenda. It wants to talk about better-than-expected economic data (even though it will not alleviate the cost-of-living crisis as income growth for households remains at zero, according to the Resolution Foundation). Instead, the government looks as if it’s presiding over broken schools and a broken country.

The Raac scandal has several political consequences. First, the Conservative Party’s conference at the end of October will be the key platform for No 10 to lay out its offer to voters, but the government’s autumn reset after a suboptimal summer is already tarnished.

Second, it mars Rishi Sunak’s time as chancellor – a vital asset for his not atrocious approval ratings. While Raac pre-dates Sunak (as Will Dunn writes, it was Michael Gove in 2010 who scrapped Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme), the Prime Minister has become personally embroiled in the scandal after he was accused of cutting funding for rebuilding schools as chancellor. That Keir Starmer’s performance at PMQs yesterday on the topic was mediocre did not matter. Sunak could not escape the perception that his parsimony had created problems (Labour should take note). I’m no political strategist but my hunch is politicians should avoid appearing responsible for concrete falling on kids – it’s a bad look.

The scandal is also the perfect illustration of what Starmer calls “sticking plaster” politics, by which he means short-term policymaking. I’ve still never heard anyone use the phrase “sticking plaster” who isn’t Keir Starmer. But if anything will popularise the slogan, it is the government preparing to prop up crumbling school buildings with steel girders in the first week of term.

The Conservatives’ strategy for re-election is based on restoring its credibility through delivering Sunak’s five priorities – halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and passing laws to stop small-boat crossings. Stories such as Raac speak to the problem with that plan: the malaise in this country is far greater than any inflationary spike or a dysfunctional asylum system. Even if inflation halves, why would voters listen when the country is falling apart?

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A final thought: Labour has not used the Raac scandal to lampoon the Conservatives for the false economy of the austerity years. That may be unnecessary given how bad the government looks in any case, but it’s worth noting the constraints that Labour’s pursuit of fiscal conservatism places on its attack lines.

[See also: The parallels between Argentina and Britain’s inept political class]

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

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