Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
W B Yeats
Just a few weeks ago, the Tories had big spending plans. As the Independent wrote on 7 November,
“Business groups and economists welcomed the end of austerity as both major parties laid out plans to dramatically ramp up spending, signalling a major shift in policy on Thursday.”
And the BBC reported that the Government was becoming Labour-lite,
“We have got into something of a bidding war between the two parties. The Tories are talking about extra cash for police, for upgrading hospitals, for what they call an infrastructure revolution. John McDonnell is talking about pouring hundreds of billions for a once-in-a-generation upgrade to the country’s infrastructure. They’re on the same terrain – they’re both talking about the end of austerity.
They’re both talking about a big increase in government spending, and they’re both talking about paying for this by borrowing. The risk for the government is that they might be seen as ‘Labour-lite’ – offering something similar, but not as ambitious.”
The IFS estimated the financial impact of the two main parties’ pledges, commenting:
“The election campaign has only just got going, but already spending promises are coming thick and fast. By the time we get to polling day, still a month away, this could turn out to have been a very expensive election, indeed. Up to £20 billion a year of extra investment spending has been pledged by the Tories, £55 billion by Labour.”
And that was the basis on which I assessed their plans originally.
But then on Sunday 24 November, in a surprisingly low-key launch, the Tories set out their manifesto. And it is a completely different animal. What is going on?
The most plausible reading of events is that this is not really a manifesto in the conventional sense; it is a licence for Market Fundamentalism:
• A normal manifesto contains attractive policy promises for which voters will vote
• A normal manifesto aligns spending commitments with these promises
• A normal manifesto is crystal clear about any constitutional changes it proposes.
This manifesto is different on every count.
A normal manifesto contains attractive policy promises for which voters will vote
Until the publication of the manifesto, they Tory Party had indeed been competing with Labour on who could make the most attractive pledges. The Tories had promised, in addition to delivering Brexit:
• To “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”
• To build new hospitals, schools, roads, railways and better broadband
• To increased spending on the NHS
• To add 20,000 to the police force
• To have an ‘infrastructure revolution’ with up to £20 billion extra investment per annum
• To fund the Northern Powerhouse rail project
• To reduce taxes
• To balance the budget by the middle of the next term.
And the world was expecting a dramatic ramping-up of spending in the manifesto, to match these promises. Instead, the actual Tory manifesto was almost empty. The IFS said:
“If the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos were notable for the scale of their ambitions the Conservative one is not. If a single Budget had contained all these tax and spending proposals we would have been calling it modest. As a blueprint for five years in government the lack of significant policy action is remarkable.”
The public may have been left with the impression of significant spending commitments, but these are not present in the manifesto. The campaign made lavish promises, but the manifesto is a licence not to spend.
A normal manifesto aligns spending commitments with these promises
Using the manifesto spending commitments to update our previous analysis gives this picture.
The additional spending and investment is barely visible – but the austerity that will be needed to balance the budget after year 3 is not. As the IFS summarised the Tories’ spending plans,
“Taken at face value, today’s manifesto suggests that for most services, in terms of day-to-day spending, that’s it. Health and school spending will continue to rise. Give or take pennies, other public services, and working age benefits, will see the cuts to their day-to-day budgets of the last decade baked in. One notable omission [from the manifesto] is any plan for social care. In his first speech as prime minister Boris Johnson promised to ‘fix the crisis in social care once and for all’. After two decades of dither by both parties in government it seems we are no further forward. On the tax side the rise in the National Insurance threshold was well trailed. The ambition for it to get to £12,500 may remain, but only the initial rise to £9,500 has been costed and firmly promised. Most in paid work would benefit, but by less than £2 a week. Another £6 billion would need to be found to get to £12,500 by the end of the parliament. Given the pressures on the spending side that is not surprising.”
“Perhaps the biggest, and least welcome, announcement is the ‘triple tax lock’: no increases in rates of income tax, NICs or VAT. That’s a constraint the chancellor may come to regret. It is also part of a fundamentally damaging narrative – that we can have the public services we want, with more money for health and pensions and schools – without paying for them. We can’t.“
No alignment then between expectations and spending plans. Voters may find that they have given a mandate for a very different profile of expenditure than they expected, and they may get very different public services from those they want.
A normal manifesto is crystal clear about any constitutional changes it proposes
The Tories’ manifesto includes a brief statement that,
“After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.”
These few lines contain potentially the most important part of the manifesto. We can expect to see far-reaching changes:
• The relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts – it is of course possible that these changes will be to strengthen the power of Parliament and the courts to hold the Government to account. But a far more plausible reading is the opposite
• The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. That this is placed in a section on constitutional change suggests that, in the name of fighting terrorism, there may be further erosion of individual rights and strengthening of Government powers
• We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays. The Government has not enjoyed the judicial reviews to which its plans to prorogue parliament or to force through a no-deal Brexit against the wishes of the House were subject. It is likely that the changes will be such as to prevent such scrutiny in future.
That such fundamental issues should be relegated to one short paragraph is extremely disturbing.
At this point, it is worth remembering that Philip Hammond, Dominic Grieve, Lord Heseltine, Ken Clarke and many other notable former Tories believe that the current cabinet does not represent the traditions of the Conservative and Unionist party, but a far right-wing group that has taken over their party. On the assumption that they have not all suddenly lost their political judgment, it is worth asking what this extreme right-wing group would like to achieve. The most plausible answer is that they would like to implement their market fundamentalist philosophy in the UK. Read more here
This is not explicitly declared, any more than the possibility of hard Brexit was raised before the referendum, but if voters were to elect the Tories on their current manifesto, the party would take it as a licence to implement market fundamentalism.
This would of course be extremely bad news for most members of the 99%, and indeed for many in the top 1%. Fortunately, through tactical voting, there is still a chance of averting the risk. And if we do that, then five relatively straightforward steps will enable us to safeguard our country’s future.