The tone surrounding the public spending debate has shifted up, or rather down, a few gears as ministers move from general direction to specific changes.
Though there remains a honeymoon feel to a lot of the coverage of the coalition, the dominant developing theme of the political narrative is the cuts now expected, and coming closer, with October 20 the date when spending decisions for this Parliament will be announced.
Any public spending round has an element of ritual to it, with spending departments seeking to defend their budgets (money means power) and specific programmes, and the Treasury (control means power) making some very tough demands, and forcing colleagues to face very tough decisions.
But this time the Treasury knife-wielding is being done with a relish that appears to have moved beyond the ritual of negotiation to a macho posturing that risks getting out of control.
This is being led by George Osborne who, even more than David Cameron, is ideologically driven by the idea that the State is more bad than good and the private sector more good than bad.
A line in today’s FT story (Whitehall winces as Osborne calls time) reveals the scale of what is being envisaged, with a few illustrative examples of the kind of thing under threat … ‘The Royal Air Force’s next generation of fast jets, the legal aid budget, skills training, the arts, prisons and business support are among the areas expected to take the biggest hit, along with more than 100,000 public sector jobs.’
What none of the calculations seem to take into account is that additional unemployment leads to an extra burden on the state, in terms of benefits paid, taxes not paid, and spending not made.
It is all a bit weird, and made possible by the recent success the Tories have had in painting the last decade of investment as a failure when in truth the improvements to schools, hospitals and other public services have come as a result of it.
Doubtless if you look hard enough, you can find waste in any budget. But the cuts now being demanded by Osborne, and even the negotiated position he will settle on, go way beyond what the challenge of the deficit requires, and have entered a return to Thatcherism, with Osbornic knobs on. The motto appears to be … All cuts good, all spending bad, consequences not to be considered.
But the consequences will be felt by every single one of us, and sooner than we might think.
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