by Jonathan Todd
There is probably a significant degree of cross-party agreement that Douglas Carswell is wrong to argue that the present government is a continuation of the last. Even David Cameron’s critics in the Conservative party would claim that he is an improvement on Gordon Brown, while many Labour party members see Cameron as the worst prime minister since Margaret Thatcher or perhaps even worse.
Yet the evidence that Carswell is not entirely wrong was clearly on display during the last PMQs. Cameron and Ed Miliband, in one sense at least, jostled for the crown of heir to Brown. They did so by benchmarking their success against how much they are spending or propose to spend on particular public services.
Given the unpopularity of Brown, this is curious politics. To make a virility symbol of state spending is even worse policy. To assume that more government is necessarily moving us closer to solutions ignores even in the best of times the reality of government failure.
These are far from the best of times. There is immense pressure on public resources. And this will continue, as Patrick Diamond notes: “Actuarial estimates suggest that an ageing population will have a bigger impact on public finances than the catastrophic effects of the financial crisis.”
This context demands a politics capable of deliberating seriously about the effectiveness and efficiency of public spending and which doesn’t simply seek to win arguments with reference to how much money is being spent in certain areas. Yet the very first thing that Cameron said in response to Miliband’s questioning was: “This Government believes in our NHS and are expanding funding in our NHS.”
Ring-fencing the NHS budget is supposed to be a signal that the service is safe in Conservative hands. One consequence of these politics is that average GP salaries are preserved at £110,000, while the welfare payments of the very poorest are cut, as the DWP does not benefit from the same ring-fence as the NHS.