The Tories have stopped talking about austerity. That doesn't mean it's gone away

Until 2020, inflation will erode the value of benefits, leaving millions of families feeling the pinch.

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Being in government has a great many advantages – not least that you have much more control over the political conversation. Even a small announcement can lead to a front-page story or a prominent clip on the nightly news if it will affect people’s lives directly. (For the opposition, life is harder – you are usually reacting rather than acting and, unless there’s an election looming, it can be hard to get anyone to listen to what you’re saying, no matter how brilliant or daring.)

The corollary of this is that when a government shuts up about an issue, it can be easy to assume that it has gone away. That’s what has happened to “austerity”, a phrase that now feels faintly dated – the political equivalent of Kiefer Sutherland’s highlights in the first season of 24.

But the departure from the Treasury of George Osborne (a “hard-working family” all by himself) has not brought about the end of austerity. This month, the benefit changes from his 2015 welfare bill came into force, including the removal of tax credits worth £2,780 a year for third children – ­unless provably conceived through rape – and a large cut to the Widowed Parent’s Allowance. This can now be claimed for 18 months only, rather than until the youngest child has left school.

The changes also include a cut to the Employment and Support Allowance for those who are sick but expected to work in future; a directive that parents claiming Universal Credit must go back to work once their youngest child is three; and a freeze on some benefits until 2020 (their value will be eroded by inflation, which is predicted to hit 3 per cent). By any measure, austerity isn’t yet over; it’s just that the word has disappeared from the government’s vocabulary.

 

Tough times ahead

April also brings a rise in the tax-free personal allowance to £11,500 and an increase in threshold for the higher-rate band from £43,000 to £45,000. As the Resolution Foundation has noted, this policy creates millions of winners – but there is little overlap between them and the losers from the benefit changes happening at the same time.

Even when the higher minimum wage and the increased childcare allowance are taken into account, writes the foundation’s David Finch, “By 2020, we can expect the poorest half of households to be worse off from combined tax and benefit changes announced this parliament.” Without policy changes, inequality will rise. And if pay growth remains slow, the next few years will be “the toughest period on record for low- and middle-income families”. Still, it’s hard to get airtime for such concerns when Brexit is so all-consuming. Perhaps we should beam some of this on to a rock?

 

Hard target

Because I am nothing if not up to the minute, I’ve celebrated the start of season four of Line of Duty on BBC1 by watching the first series on Netflix. The police thriller was created by Jed Mercurio, a former doctor who also wrote the hospital drama Bodies. (That featured Keith Allen, in the best performance of his career, as a magnificently sardonic senior consultant.) I keep reading complaints that Line of Duty has “become unbelievable” and I have to remind people that in the first series a senior detective under suspicion of corruption does a poo on the driver’s seat of the officer investigating him. That shark was pre-jumped, people.

But it’s great television. And, like Bodies, the real villain is not a person – not the drug kingpin who chops off people’s fingers or the rubbish surgeon who botches operations – but the target-driven bureaucracy that creates perverse incentives and encourages the professions to close ranks around incompetent colleagues.

 

Kerbs, their enthusiasm

On 29 March I hosted a New Statesman event with the outspoken Labour backbencher Jess Phillips, whose book, Everywoman, is (in the best possible way) like sitting next to her on the bus. I know there’s a great hunger for an inspiring opposition at the moment and hearing about Labour’s work on domestic violence and rape trials was a good counterbalance to any sense of fatalism. Phillips also pointed out that her constituents in Birmingham Yardley care far less about the minutiae of Brexit than about the more pressing issue of dropped kerbs, a lesson that I will try to keep in mind.

Incidentally, a week earlier, I chaired another NS discussion between Charles Falconer, Nick Clegg and Gina Miller about leaving the European Union. I asked Clegg and Falconer if they had ever found themselves unable to get something done in government because of the overweening power of the EU. Both said no.

 

Heptarchy in the UK

My other guilty TV pleasure is the second series of The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels about 9th-century Wessex. The protagonist is a long-haired Saxon orphan called Uhtred (who is always keen to remind us he is also the son of Uhtred; perhaps Matt Ridley’s son does the same). But the standout performance is David Dawson as King Alfred, who does a lot of acting despite mostly standing very still with his arms clasped behind his back.

Anyway, it’s particularly fun to watch this series now, when the British Union seems to be splintering. I’ve decided to become a strong campaigner for the heptarchy. Yes, I might need a passport to visit my parents in Mercia but, on the plus side, we could exile Nigel Farage to the new kingdom of Kent and refuse him a work permit to appear on TV programmes recorded in Wessex.

Helen Lewis will be in conversation with Jess Phillips and Catherine Mayer on 23 April. Details: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue