“Austerity is over,” Theresa May has reportedly told Conservative MPs. With the election failure still stinging, cabinet members including Boris Johnson and David Davis are said to have told the prime minister that seven years of cuts must finally come to an end.
Right. Forgive me, Boris and co, but I’m a bit lost. What about the economy? It’s just that, for almost a decade, all we’ve heard from Conservative politicians and the right-wing press is that austerity is necessary to fix Britain’s economy post-recession. As recently as last year, then-chancellor George Osborne was stating austerity would need to continue until the 2020s to – in The Telegraph’s words – “clean up the nation’s finances”. And what about those cuts to the NHS, councils, schools and benefits? If – as the Conservatives have always argued – spending by Labour was out of control and, in hard times, there’s less money for public services, how can we fund them now? Have you found the “magic money tree”, Theresa? It’s as if it was never actually necessary to gut public services. It’s as if austerity was a political choice after all.
For years, it’s been widely established that, in the words of one Nobel Prize winner in economics, “the case for cuts was a lie.” By announcing that austerity will end, the Conservatives have inadvertently at last admitted it: austerity is an ideological choice – one that can be stopped at whim based on how an election has gone.
And, gallingly, that’s what this is all about. Read the reports of May’s conversations with her cabinet on Monday and what stands out is the motive behind this huge U-turn – “voters’ patience” with the cuts has run out. Not that the government is worried NHS underfunding is so bad that – in May's own constituency – mums and babies are potentially in danger at understaffed maternity wards. That councils being cut to the bone mean libraries, parks and children's centres are closing. Or that schools are having to shorten the day because they can't afford enough teachers, books or paper. But that the fed-up electorate may vote them out.
Theresa May thinks she can say the phrase 'Austerity is over', click her fingers and it’s as if nothing ever happened
For the millions of families put through harrowing cuts, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that the government is planning on ending austerity, not because of the damage it’s doing to them, but because of the damage it’s doing to the Tories’ chance of being in power.
This is only made worse by the fact that the claim "Austerity is over" is largely misleading. What it actually means is that no further cuts are coming (May is said to be under particular pressure to prevent upcoming school cuts.) This isn’t exactly news – May came into office promising no new benefit cuts – more a rehash of an old soundbite that no one knows if we can trust. Crucially, the vast number of austerity measures – from the bedroom tax to public-sector pay freezes – will continue. Others, like the universal credit rollout, are yet to fully kick in and, as yet, there’s no promise from May she’ll pull those – like benefit freezes – that still need to be voted on by parliament. Let’s not forget policies like the infamous "rape clause" to tax-credit cuts, and taking £30 per week from people too disabled to work, only came in three months ago. Austerity is still happening. In fact, for some people, it’s only really getting going.
The more I think about the ease with which the Tories have declared the apparent end to austerity, the angrier I get. With their calculated move, they’ve confirmed that all the pain they’ve created has essentially been for nothing. Disabled people unable to get to the toilet because their social-care package has been gutted. Domestic-violence victims with nowhere to go because refuges have had their funding pulled. Children queuing at food banks because their parents have had their benefits cuts. All of them essentially collateral damage to a political game gone wrong.
Theresa May thinks she can say the phrase "Austerity is over", click her fingers and it’s as if nothing ever happened. It’s an insult to every person who’s been made to suffer because of cuts. Sorry, Theresa. That won’t be forgotten.