The Conservative Party’s traditional duty in British politics is neither happy nor easy. As the old trope goes, it’s the Tories’ job to come in and clean up the mess each time Labour have wrecked the public finances with excessive spending, taxing and borrowing.
There are plenty of other things we’d rather do. Sometimes, we get the legislative space to do them – giving people the freedom to own their own homes through Right to Buy, for example, or opening up education to innovators through Free Schools – but mostly the prevailing weather has already been decided by others.
Nor is it much fun. Despite the routine left-wing critique that every Tory is secretly slavering for cuts, in reality Conservatives see it as a duty to try to right the ship, to the extent that they’re willing to take the battles and demonisation that goes with doing so. It would be far easier to opt for Labour’s self-gratification of promising endless freebies and the permanent suspension of the fundamental economic equation: the bills the state runs up must inevitably be paid for by somebody.
Voters tend to know this. At its bluntest, Britain’s political reputations break between the idea that the left is all heart but no brain, and the right is all brain but no heart. Fairly or otherwise, that’s how many people see it. And they tend to choose accordingly. If they think the country is overdue for a bit of indulgence, and can afford it, they vote Labour. If they think times are tough, and the nation ought to practice hard-headed restraint, they vote Tory.
By and large, each party has lived up (or down) to those stereotypes. The last few years of Conservative government, however, are proving to be an exception. Austerity was undoubtedly necessary – it was so clear that before the 2010 election the voters were more radical on public spending than the Conservative Party. People accepted that it needed to be reined in, and braced themselves for tough but important action.
But, somewhere along the way, the job hasn’t been done. George Osborne fans may point to his various tough decisions, and tougher speeches, as well as to the battles he fought and the unpopularity he attracted – but the fact remains that the deficit target slipped. It has kept on slipping under Hammond. The deficit is down, but after seven years it is currently scheduled to remain in existence indefinitely.
This is hugely dangerous. Dangerous for the country, because we run the risk of going into the next economic downturn with the state already sustained by sizeable borrowing – precisely the error made by Gordon Brown, which made the British experience of the crash worse than it needed to be. And dangerous for the Conservative Party, because if your core brand rests on being fiscally responsible, and hard-nosed enough to clean up Labour’s mess, you had damned well better make sure that once in power you fulfil that expectation.
We can already see the damage being done to the Tory vote by the uncomfortable prospect of a near-permanent twilight state of austerity. By squandering the early years on half-measures, the chance to do the job might well have been permanently missed. People might opt for a short, sharp shock to fix problems – few are likely to be enthused by the prospect of unending half-restraint, partial pain but only slow gain.
Would it have been easy to get on top of this problem in the Osborne years? No. Even the action that was taken was hard, and they were hobbled on some fronts by the reliance on Lib Dem votes. But the whole point of British conservatism is this: just because something might be hard to do, that does not mean it is not worth doing.
There remains the uncomfortable suspicion that, with his eyes on a greater prize, the former Chancellor was simply unwilling to completely sacrifice his reputation on the altar of the national interest, and so squandered a time-limited opportunity on doing only half the job. Quite how far the harm of that reluctance will extend, and how long it will last, is yet to be seen – by his country or his party.