The graph above is from the recently-published annual British Social Attitudes report. Readers will see that at some point in 2006 – before the crash – attitudes to tax and spending changed significantly. The proportion of people who believed that spending and tax should stay as they were overtook the proportion thinking that taxes and spending should rise. They will also see that at roughly the time of the 2015 election they changed back again: once again, the proportion of those thinking that spending and taxes should rise overtook those who believe that they should stay the same. David Cameron made it over the winning line that year despite a gradual shift against the position of his party.
June’s election should be seen in the context of this turn in the political weather. In 2010, there was a sense that the priority for economic policy should be reducing the deficit, regardless of which party won the election. Alistair Darling pledged to reduce it by half. George Osborne committed to eliminating the bulk of it during the course of the coming Parliament. Pre-election, Nick Clegg warned that tough decisions on tax and spending were necessary. The formation of a coalition government in its wake gave a sense of national mission to the task. Osborne failed to achieve his aim, but departmental spending was cut back, the deficit fell, recovery came – and, despite the scaleback, voter satisfaction with public services was higher than under Labour.
Now is different. A Conservative-led Government is in its seventh year of deficit reduction. The youngest tranche of voters has no real memory of life under Labour. And it is the best part of 50 years since Britain had an old-fashioned socialist government; one has to look back to the brief 1974-76 period under Harold Wilson to find one. The 40 per cent of the vote that Jeremy Corbyn gained is not a sign that most of Britain wants socialism – after all, he didn’t win – but it is a sign that much of it does. The speed at which Labour advanced and the Conservatives declined during the election campaign has spooked some Tory MPs and members – of which the push within Cabinet for the cap on public sector pay to be lifted is one of the most obvious symptoms.
Before the EU referendum, Osborne was already making heroic assumptions about hitting his surplus target in 2020. The exigencies of Brexit require Philip Hammond to keep maximum flexibility, and he now aims to balance the budget “by the middle of the next decade”. The election bungle has not helped him. Even with a majority, first David Cameron and then Theresa May, plus her new Chancellor, were knocked off-course by backbench and Lords revolts. Osborne’s plans for tax credit change were torpedoed; so were Hammond’s for NICs reform – one of the centrepieces of his last budget. If the last Government could not always quell revolt with a majority, how will this one cope without it?
Yesterday’s intervention by the Office of Budget Responsibility was thus a breath of fresh air – or chilly air, anyway – amidst this overheated climate. “The essential thing here is to have the debt-to-GDP ratio on a declining path during good times to build up insurance space that you can exploit when the bad times hit,” said Charlie Bean, one of its directors. Or, to put it another way, one must fix the roof when the sun is shining. The Chancellor’s Autumn Budget is very unlikely to propose a further spending scaleback. But he will need to fill the £3.5 billion black hole in his plans left by what the OBR sees as the Government’s failure to get through measures from recent budgets and autumn statements. Which he won’t do if some of his colleagues let Corbyn troll them into losing their heads.
As for voters’ apparent attachment to more taxes and spending, take another look at that graph. That was their take for the best part of 20 years, between roughly 1986 and 2006. This didn’t stop the Conservatives from winning two out the five elections held during that period. Naturally, they have to adapt to changing times, as any political party must – which is why they would be unwise, say, to proclaim a minimalist view of the state, or scrap the minimum wage, or abandon the infrastructure programme. But if the Tories aren’t the party of sound money, they might as well give up. Now they and their allies must educate a new generation about how unsound money leads to economic crises – and emergency cuts that inevitably hit the destitute, poor and disabled hardest.