The £20bn public services bung reportedly dangled before MPs by the chancellor Philip Hammond before this week’s spring statement, in an attempt to persuade them to vote for Theresa May’s Brexit deal, will not surprise anyone who believes the main cause of disintegrating public services is lack of ministerial will to invest, rather than lack of money.
Like May’s desperate £1.6bn bribe for the leave-voting “left-behind” northern England towns, it tells us not so much that Hammond believes a weary, austerity-battered UK deserves a new era of public services settlement, but that resources can always be found when the future of the Conservative party is at stake.
It also reminds us that the government has no strategy for public services investment. Look at the way it has responded to crises in the NHS, social care, housing, prisons, schools and policing in recent years. All follow a familiar sequence: failure to spot early signs of failure; belated acceptance of public alarm; denial that lack of resources is to blame; then grudging, hastily arranged emergency funding to make the problem go briefly away.
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The response to the surge in knife crime in recent weeks was entirely typical: lack of awareness of the problem; prickly refusal to accept that cuts in the numbers of police officers may have been a factor in the crisis; a swift reversal when the public backlash inevitably arrived; and, very soon after, plans cobbled together (though opposed by Hammond) for a £15m emergency police grant to fight knife crime.
The underlying causes of this and all the other crises – underfunding, poverty and soaring need – are, inevitably, never addressed in these panicky forays. That nearly nine years of austerity cuts are themselves a turbo-generator of far more costly demand for services – in social care, housing benefit support, mental health services and child protection, to name just a few – is for ministers a truth that must remain universally unacknowledged. That the cuts drive crime, hunger and ill health is even more forcefully ignored.
Hammond, like May, likes to suggest that austerity will soon be over, but then what? Austerity was the Tories’ one clear strategy: it was natural for them to decide that public services (and public servants) and the welfare state should be sacrificed to pay for the financial crash. The small state, after all, was never a temporary phase. If it was not the whole point of the exercise, then it was a most valuable side-effect. Why would Conservative ministers ever want to put that gain in jeopardy?
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One of the great myths of austerity was that it would bring efficiency to public services. But ministers have been happy for the state just to do a lot less. The big “savings” have come not by innovation, or re-engineering service to reduce demand, but by restricting or shutting down services, freezing staff wages and cutting social security benefits (though maintaining basic statutory levels of services in many areas of the public realm have been mini-masterpieces of improvisation).
It has become a commonplace that Brexit has consumed all the energy and intellectual bandwidth of Whitehall, crowding out the development of public services policy. It is equally plausible that Brexit has acted as cover for the growing failure of austerity, and the government’s absence of new ideas. There is a growing opportunity, you sense, for a political party with a convincing plan for public services renewal.