Last week, just as the Government began to shift gears over the floods, I fretted that ministers were in danger of a return to Brownite attitudes to public spending.
Brown’s approach was always to measure success by how much he was spending – regardless of efficiency, effectiveness or results. Costly equalled good. That is the thinking which created a bloated, wasteful state, and drove the deficit to such terrifying heights.
Did ministers give in to the easy but dangerous temptation to boast of their budgets as evidence of their effectiveness? Yes, but it’s turned out even worse than I feared.
On Tuesday, David Cameron declared that “money is no object” in the response to the flooding.
Perhaps fittingly for the week in which the TaxPayers’ Alliance celebrates its tenth birthday, those four words are a sign of quite how much work remains to be done in changing Westminster attitudes to tax and spend.
It’s a short term problem, in that the left use it to poke holes in the wider austerity argument (what are the odds of Ed Balls bringing it up in his Budget response?), while the Government have been forced to backpedal, deploying Patrick McLoughlin to do so.
But it’s much more than that. “Money is no object” is a symptom of the Conservative Party’s continued failure to realise the scale of the problem we face as a nation.
Austerity is for life, not just for crises.
We must not simply return to splurging money once growth is back, and we must not allow Labour any chance to pretend the war on government waste can end once times are good again.
All politicians, and Conservatives in particular, must wean themselves off the idea that promising to spend money is an acceptable way to buy quick, positive headlines. That’s the junk food of campaigning – a second on the lips, a lifetime on the hips of the weighty state.
This is why my heart sank when I heard those words: “Money is no object”. Never again should anyone claim that to be true.
With overburdened taxpayers and a mountain of debt after years of Brownite excess, and a political culture poisoned by equating bigger with better, we have a responsibility to make a fundamental, permanent change to the nation’s view of the public finances. Government should be there to take care of our hard-earned taxes, measuring success by value for money as well as results.
The irony is that the rest of the country is more open to this shift in expectations than ever. Last autumn, ICM found that most people believe public services have either improved or stayed the same during the last five years, despite the avalanche of negative coverage of “the cuts”. Events are blowing a hole in the Brownite misconception that quality must always correlate with cost – David Cameron and George Osborne should have the courage to leave that misconception behind, and replace it with a newer, more responsible, principle.
Money – the people’s money, taxpayers’ money – matters. The more carefully we spend it and the more efficiently it is used, the better the services we get, and the less of it the Government has to take.