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26 March 2024

Even Tories are disowning austerity

The legacy of 14 years in power is hanging heavily on the party.

By Freddie Hayward

Some Tory MPs grimace when you mention austerity. “We went too far,” they will admit in private. Boris Johnson’s election in 2019 was a recognition that the programme had to be reversed. His promise to hire 20,000 police officers was a commitment to replace those that had been laid off since 2010. Levelling up chimed with the sense that cutting local government budgets by 40 per cent had been a bad idea. The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, told Anoosh Chakelian in 2022 that social care cuts “went too far” and had proved to be a “silent killer”.

Sam Knight has written a long report in the New Yorker which is worth quoting. He tells a story of a country whose decline was quickened by austerity and Brexit – both decisions made by a governing party that the public continued to re-elect. “Austerity has contributed to an atmosphere of fatalism,” he writes, “an aversion to thinking about the future. ‘It is a mood,’ Johnna Montgomerie, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies debt and inequality, has written. ‘A depression, a chronic case of financial melancholia.’”

David Willetts, a minister under David Cameron, told Knight: “The burden of adjustment has almost entirely been borne by the less affluent half of the British population.” Giles Wilkes, who was a Lib Dem staffer at the time, said: “It was very obvious in real time… there wasn’t a central function going, ‘Hold on a mo. Have we made sure that we can provide a decent prison estate, a decent sort of police system?’”

Alongside the self-recrimination, a ruthless picture emerges of George Osborne creating the political cover to squeeze the state without losing office:

“‘The word “austerity” was deliberately introduced into the lexicon by myself and David Cameron,’ Osborne said. ‘Austerity’ evoked the country’s sober rebuilding after the Second World War. ‘The word didn’t have the connotations then that it does now,’ Osborne recalled. ‘It was, you know, a bit like prudence.’”

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And austerity was, according to Osborne, “devastatingly politically effective”. The former chancellor tries to cast the policy as an inevitability, even when most other countries went in a different direction after the 2008 financial crash. But other Tories baulk at the devastation that austerity wrought. Why the shift in attitudes? There is mounting evidence, such as the Marmot report, that public-sector decay is a consequence of austerity. Some note the programme’s contribution to the vote for Brexit. Others sense that the Overton window – the range of acceptable opinion – has shifted against austerity and are stretching to ensure that the light from that window shines in their faces.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: How Reform could pose a threat to Labour]

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