Post-IDS and pre-referendum, are the wheels falling off the Conservative government?
This wasn’t supposed to happen. As the Chancellor finalised his speech on Tuesday night, the path ahead looked clear: he’d deliver his budget, as he had done seven times before. There’d be a day or so of media coverage, with most outlets nodding solemnly and reporting that this skilful economist was doing what was necessary to balance the books. The left would make its usual grumbles but there’d be no substantial parliamentary opposition, and besides, the sugar tax would divert most people’s attention away from the nitty gritty. The Chancellor could then continue with business, a potential Prime Minister-in-waiting.
That’s what was supposed to happen. What George Osborne never foresaw was this: the public honing in on his £4.4bn cut to disability allowance benefits. Vehement opposition flaring up everywhere from left-wing parties to right-wing newspapers. His own economic credibility taking an almighty beating and his party sinking in the polls. Then, to cap it off, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions resigning in protest. What has happened to the Tories over the past few days goes beyond a bad week at the office. At the very least, it’s proof of a party attempting to shift into fifth gear and being swiftly humbled. It could well be a sign of the wheels falling off the Conservative government entirely.
It’s safe to say that this hasn’t been a wildly successful term. Cannier Conservatives were right to avoid seeming too triumphant after their narrow election victory, with the following ten months bringing a forced u-turn on tax credits, bitter internal divisions over the EU, and broadly-supported strikes against a Health Secretary who’s about as popular as herpes. After six years in power the Conservatives can no longer blame everything on Labour, and Osborne’s excuses about the “cocktail of risks” posed by the world economy are only shifting so much of the responsibility. This government is finally being held to account for its own track record, and it’s a record of tepid recovery, a weak economy and increasing inequality.
It’s been argued that the truth has little to do with politics. What’s important is what people believe to be true and, regardless of reality, the same old stereotypes tend to surround our political parties. Labour are good with the NHS but overspend, the consensus states, while the Tories are more reliable with the economy. This myth did much to propel Cameron to power, but the cracks are now showing. Having consistently failed to meet their deficit reduction targets while racking up more debt than every post-war Labour government combined (not to mention losing the UK’s AAA credit rating for the first time ever), the Conservatives’ – and therefore George Osborne’s – economic credibility was on rocky ground. This budget has only cemented that, with losses in revenue due to lowered corporation tax and increased tax-free personal allowance indicating that Osborne has no real clue how to reach his budget surplus aims without targeting the needy. He’s hardly loveable as it is, but without his economic wunderkind reputation he barely has a leg to stand on.
And without Osborne’s desired fiscal results, the electorate are questioning what six years of hardship have been worth. Austerity was sold as a bitter pill we ought to swallow for the sake of economic recovery, but cuts on this scale aren’t temporary fixes. For one, they’ve not fixed much – take our paltry growth and barely-functioning local councils – but they’re also not temporary. Slashed investment and beleaguered public services are, evidently, the Tories’ modus operandi. This might sit comfortably enough with an ever-smaller, ever-wealthier elite, but for everybody else it’s starting to chafe.
That ‘everybody else’ includes traditionally right-leaning papers like The Sun (who campaigned against tax credit cuts) and The Telegraph (who called Personal Independence Payment cuts “woeful”), and now, apparently, one of the nastiest of the ‘Nasty Party’: Iain Duncan Smith. It’s hard to believe that conscience has suddenly overcome the man who oversaw the bedroom tax and punitive, Kafka-esque Work Capability Assessments; the move is likely more about personal gain than principles. However, Duncan Smith’s parting shots – in which he described fiscal restraints as being ‘distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest’ – underline how those in camp Conservative are as aware as anybody else that further austerity isn’t necessary. They’re aware of the injustice of placing disability allowance cuts alongside tax breaks for high earners. And still they plough on, fashioning the world to adhere to their ideology, unfazed by its disastrous real-life consequences.
Of course, backlash against the Tories won’t automatically equal a Labour resurgence. Heartening as it is to see Jeremy Corbyn ahead in the polls, we all know to approach polls with caution. Labour need to regain control of the narrative and set out a convincing alternative if they’re to succeed. Still, as a Leicester City fan I’ve learned to never underestimate the possibility of a sudden reversal of fortune, and with Conservative credibility waning there’s no better time for Labour to strike.
It’s easy to feel disheartened, sitting by helplessly as Cameron & co. implement whatever shambolic and morally questionable policies they wish. Opposition is now anywhere but on the fringes, though, whether that’s grassroots campaigners starting protests and petitions, the media turning its back on austerity, or Corbyn firing his geography teacher glare at Prime Minister’s Questions. This government is being held down for scrutiny, and under the nation’s magnifying glass they’re not looking too pretty. Maybe they’ll recover; they’ve pulled off bigger comebacks before. Then again, in 100 days’ time we can’t even be certain who the Prime Minister of post-referendum Britain will be. After earning the title of ’most divided party in Westminster’ and losing any façade of being a party the non-wealthy are safe voting for, even pragmatists would concede that the Tories’ future is uncertain.
For those opposed to the Conservatives, 2015-2020 was always going to be a rough time. It turns out, though, that the people coming out of it worst might just be the Conservatives themselves.
About the author
Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.
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