Boris and the Conservatives must continue to make the case for living within our means
BY SUSAN HALL
The Conservative Party is a broad church, but there are certain commandments that should be universally accepted amongst Conservative members, Councillors and MPs. Perhaps the foremost of these is the idea of sound money – the view that no Government should spend more than it can raise in taxes in the medium or long term. Almost as sacrosanct is the credo that individuals are better at spending their own money than the State is at spending it on their behalf. Therefore Conservatives should seek to keep taxes as low as possible, deliver services as efficiently as possible and recognise that when we have to raise money via taxation we have a responsibility to spend it as carefully as we possibly can.
Our Party does not always get this right and it is entirely possible to find examples of wasteful spending from Conservative councils and even, occasionally, from a Conservative Government. Nevertheless, time and again it is Conservative Councils and the Conservative Government that hold down taxes and provide better services. As Council Leader in Harrow, I was always clear that this was the way forward. We had to slash wasteful spending and we had to deliver improved services for local residents – and we did. Conservative Councillors up and down the country do the same every single day.
When David Cameron became Prime Minister in May 2010, his Government inherited the largest peacetime deficit in UK history. Not for nothing Labour’s Liam Byrne leave his successor as Chief Secretary to the Treasury a note saying “I’m afraid there is no money left.” There was broad unanimity across the House of Commons that cuts would need to be made to rebalance the public finances. This was a key reason why Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats chose to go into coalition with the Conservative Party. He knew that public spending could not continue as before. Similarly Alistair Darling, the outgoing Labour Chancellor, when asked how his planned cuts compared to Margaret Thatcher’s replied: “They will be deeper and tougher.” In January 2010 he said: “The next spending review will be the toughest we have had for 20 years.”
Whilst there was some disagreement on the precise pace of deficit reduction, in 2010 no serious UK politician tried to pretend that such reduction was unnecessary. With Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and their acolytes leading the charge against balancing the books since 2015, it remains the case that no serious UK politician has tried to pretend doing so could be ignored. Gordon Brown may have sought to justify running endless deficits because he had “abolished boom and bust” but, once the bust came in 2008, even he accepted that significant cuts were necessary.
In April 2009, when he was Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron gave a speech in which he declared that “the age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity.” The term caught on and the effort to balance the books quickly became known as austerity – and that was a huge mistake. The word ‘austerity’ conjures up the idea of nasty medicine that must be swallowed in order for the economy to be ‘fixed’. That’s absolutely not the way to look at what needed to happen. Instead of ‘austerity’ we should have been clear that the Government needed to live within its means. Living within our means is not a one-off process designed to fix a one-off problem. It is the way to ensure that Government spending is sustainable. A Conservative Government should always be clear that deficits may sometimes be an unavoidable necessity in the short term but that the prosperity and success of our country and its people in the medium and the long term rests on the same basic tenets: balanced budgets, low taxes and making sure work pays.
David Cameron now admits that cuts should have been faster and deeper. In 2010 people were ready for that message. Unfortunately – perhaps due to the presence of the Liberal Democrats in Government in a coalition – that did not happen and the efforts to balance the budget dragged on and tried people’s patience. How much better would it have been if the Government was running a surplus by 2014? We could then have split that surplus three ways: on reducing the National Debt, on cutting taxes – particularly on businesses and on the low paid – and on carefully increasing spending in some well-targeted areas.
So what now? There are siren voices saying that the new Conservative Government needs to turn on the spending taps in order to secure the support of those voters in the Midlands and the North who lent us their votes at the General Election. Those voices are wrong. Whilst we certainly need a strong offer to paint the red wall blue – to retain the seats we have just gained and to give ourselves the best chance of winning newly marginal seats in 2024 – that offer should not mean dressing ourselves in Labour’s clothes. We can do better than that. We need to invest in improved transport infrastructure, where that infrastructure has a strong benefit to cost ratio. We need to create free ports and enterprise zones to provide further spurs for the private sector to create better jobs. We need to cut taxes for all, but particularly for the low paid. We should be confident that Conservative policies are the best way to help those who work hard. The Conservative Party is and must be a broad church – and with Conservative policies it will be. Here endeth the lesson.
Susan Hall is a London Assembly Member and Leader of the Conservative Group. Follow her on twitter: @Councillorsuzie