How much longer can this wretched Tory Government possibly last? It looks like the Chancellor’s lame jokes and contrived cadence at the despatch box during last week’s Budget statement may have staved off the knife-wielding Tory MPs who want him out. But what about the substance of what Philip Hammond actually said? At no time, during the 56 minutes he was on his feet did he address the dire predicament faced by millions of citizens after seven long years of his Government’s awful austerity agenda.
I challenged the Chancellor’s approach in a speech I made in the House of Commons a few hours after he had sat down. I made it clear that his statement offered very little to celebrate and actually represented the latest iteration of abject failure stretching back to 2010. What this Budget showed is that the Government is addicted to an ideology that is even being questioned by former advocates like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Where was the help for low paid employees; where was the support for public sector workers; where was the boost for health, education and local government; where was the large-scale house-building programme; where was the urgently needed cash injection for social care?
The investment in the nation’s infrastructure was also woefully inadequate and the regional discrepancies in government funding remain, despite some crumbs from the table that will benefit the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse.’ My own region in the East Midlands is a case in point. It has some of the lowest rates of public investment anywhere in the country receiving, for example, £91 investment per head in railways compared to £746 in London.
But the Chancellor’s perverse priorities were starkly illustrated by his treatment of the banks compared to the NHS. Ahead of the budget the NHS chief executive warned that without adequate funding, the waiting list will rise to five million patients within the three or four years and the right to NHS treatment within 18 weeks will have to be abolished. The extra funding he has earmarked for the NHS is less than half the amount that experts say is needed to prevent a calamity.
Contrast Hammond’s treatment of the NHS, which serves everyone, to the way he dealt with the banks in this Budget. Incredibly, he doled out a staggering £4.4billion reduction in the banking levy. He effectively cocked a snook at the British people.
But it’s not as if these measures are strengthening our economy, they are positively making matters worse. Philip Hammond, Theresa May and the Tory cabinet are using the instruments of government to wreak havoc in the future of this country before they are eventually thrown out of office. They are behaving like rogue directors of a demolition company wrestling over the controls of a wrecking ball, while simultaneously emptying the coffers by introducing measures that benefit the bankers who bankroll the Tory Party.
The devastation to our public services is quite breathtaking. I understand the Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that direct funding of local government will have fallen by 79% by 2020 from its 2010 levels. This is the equivalent of a slash and burn approach that a foreign power might seek to inflict if it was an enemy of Britain, but this is being done by a party that wraps itself in the Union Jack! Samuel Johnson’s famous quotation that: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” is particularly apposite for the modern Conservative Party.
We were promised so much seven and half years ago, when the Liberal Democrats fulfilled the role of useful idiots by giving David Cameron the keys to 10 Downing Street. Back then George Osborne told us we were “all in it together.” He assured us that he would eliminate the deficit and slash government borrowing. Tory MPs chorused in grave tones about how wrong and unfair it would be to leave our debts for our children to pay off. Meanwhile, they have continued to back policies that have seen the national debt almost double.
Despite the Government’s spectacular failure, these Tories continue to traduce Labour’s alternative to austerity. But leading economists agree that Labour’s proposals are sensible. In the present circumstances, when the country is crying out for investment, and when interest rates are historically very low, it is tantamount to an act of economic sabotage not to invest in the future.
Earlier this week 22 leading economists signed a letter stating that: “Increased public investment in productive activity will expand our nation’s income and with it, government tax revenues. By so doing public investment will enlarge the economic ‘cake’ and help bring down future debt interest payments as a share of GDP.”
A new consensus is emerging that Britain needs the steering hand of an enabling state, which is what Labour is now offering.