Responsible spending is essential to the Conservatives’ pitch to voters, they shouldn’t abandon it now

The results of public votes always have a strange way of shifting the “Overton window” of what is and isn’t mainstream politics. A curious mixing of electoral politics and media narratives try and seduce us into thinking that somehow, we live in a country quite different from the one we knew just a few hours before.

The election of Tony Blair in 1997 told us that the Labour Party could only win with a moderate, centrist approach. The election of 2017 told us that in fact, the country longed for a return to socialism. Recent political history is littered with examples of these supposed changing or even contradictory wills of the public.

The surprise that accompanied the Brexit vote in 2016 and the unexpectedly poor results for the Conservatives in the 2017 General Election mean that we are still engaged in a rather facile debate about what the public did or did not mean when it gave a collective middle finger to the established wisdom.

One of the most contorted conclusions that the Labour Party has drawn, aided and abetted by the more spineless elements of the Conservative Party, is that the public have had enough of austerity and that we need to start spending again.

With just a whiff of good economic news, the cries start pouring in for more spending – from axing the public sector pay cap, to funnelling more funding into ailing public services such as the NHS and schools.

Those politicians calling for a more relaxed approach to Government spending, point to that erstwhile ally of dubious assumptions – polls – up their inflexible beliefs. They say that British public opinion has moved decisively in favour of increasing taxes and spending more, as shown in last year’s British Social Attitudes survey. What they fail to point out is that support for reducing spending overall has never surpassed 10% since the yearly survey began in 1983. Yet in that time, Conservatives have won six general elections and the only Labour leader to have triumphed in the same period is one who came into office, promising to match Conservative spending plans.

Clearly, telling people you’re going to give them less money, is not a vote winner. Just ask Theresa May how the dementia tax went down with the public.

More importantly, people vote for the Conservatives because they have spent years preserving a record as the party of grown-up Government who will take the tough choices required when in office. This might mean responding with appropriate action when a foreign state seems to have assassinated a UK resident with a deadly nerve agent, but it also means not giving in to lazy demands for extra spending as the wind blows. Furthermore, every time a Conservative goes public with calls for more spending, they give the impression that limiting Government spending is simply a nice-to-have or that we have somehow passed an imaginary line past which we can simply spend what we like again.

But aside from the politics, the cold truth is that the UK is still a long way from being in a stable financial position. While Philip Hammond trumpeted the fact that Government debt as a proportion of GDP will fall back below 80% in the coming years, this is scant reassurance. We continue to spend around £40 billion every single year simply on debt interest payments, the same amount that we have agreed to pay the European Union as our exit payment. Additionally, according to the Bank of England, household debt and corporate debt remains stubbornly at around 150% of GDP. Even this doesn’t take into account the nightmare of pension liabilities, which according to the ONS release last week has hit £7.6 trillion, or around three times the UK’s total GDP.

The heart of the problem is not in fact how much we spend, but how we spend it. Take education for example. In contrast to the Dickensian characterisation led by Jeremy Corbyn, the UK is one of the most generous OECD countries in its education spending, surpassed only by the USA and Luxembourg and outpacing the supposed socialist panacea in Sweden. While the challenges in schools are very real in some parts of the country and the failure to educate our children effectively to succeed in the modern economy is one of the central challenges of the coming decades, the problem is not a lack of funding for the education system.

But what about the truly big one – the NHS. Read the papers and you might wonder how it came out of another winter without collapsing into rubble. The figures though again, spell a different picture. The UK once again outpaces the OECD average easily, spending more than Canada and Italy – the only other G7 countries with a Government-led funding model. Again, the NHS is facing challenges as it always has, but they are not the stinginess of Philip Hammond.

In other areas, we also outpace the rest of the developed world, being just one of a handful of countries to continue to meet the NATO defence spending threshold of 2% as well as the infamous 0.7% that goes towards international development.

The sad truth is that the UK has not really imposed “austerity” other than in welfare, and while continuing to manage the country’s finances in a way that cannot be seen to be anything other than generous by international standards. Even Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister of the radical left, wrote in Adults in the Room that the UK had not experienced real austerity, telling George Osborne in a meeting that “you are not really doing much of it, are you?”

So inadvertently through failing to enact real fiscal responsibility and simultaneously failing to challenge the attacks of the left on “austerity”, the Conservatives have opened the door to the most openly socialist spending agenda ever proposed in the UK. If Corbyn does indeed become Prime Minister when the opportunity arises, the Conservatives will only have themselves to blame.

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