The Guardian view on Sajid Javid’s spending review: please sir, can we have some more? | Editorial

More money for schools, hospitals and police is welcome – but don’t be fooled by promises of the end of austerity

The roots of Wednesday’s extraordinary performance by the chancellor, Sajid Javid, stretch back at least two and a half years. In the 2017 general election, a nurse on Question Time asked Theresa May why her pay hadn’t gone up once in real terms since 2009. The then prime minister’s response? “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.” One of the most infamous remarks of a car-crash campaign by the Conservatives, it helped teach the party something: it could not win another election by promising further austerity. Scroll forward to autumn 2019 and another prime minister evidently revving up to go to the country. Boris Johnson has learned his lesson: his government needs to be seen to be caring, compassionate, responsive to the country’s problems. It needs to be seen to be spending.

Which brings us to Wednesday afternoon and a spending round unlike any other. It took place a year after it was scheduled and only covers one year, rather than the traditional three. Even by the standards of this most nakedly political of major Treasury announcements, Mr Javid acted like he was giving a stump speech. Or at least he tried to, until he was repeatedly pulled up by the Speaker, John Bercow. The result was a messy, rambling performance taking in vignettes from Mr Javid’s childhood, paeans to a “global Britain” and choruses that “we are turning the page on austerity”.

If only. This newspaper has opposed austerity from the start. The harm it has done to the UK’s economy, the carnage among our poorest and the instability it has ushered into our politics more than bears out that judgment. Yet the £13.8bn of extra cash, while certainly the best news from a Tory chancellor this decade, hardly marks the end of austerity. That would mean reversing the decade-long cuts to our public services and to the social security system (not usually mentioned in the spending review), which some economists believe could take another decade.

Instead, what Mr Javid offers is the prospect of no more austerity in the vast majority of Whitehall spending – for one year. He can afford that partly by leaning on forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility made in the spring, which if updated would look a lot worse. He claims to have stuck within the Treasury “fiscal rules”, but that is unlikely – nor does it really matter, since George Osborne regularly broke his rules and lost none of his “iron chancellor” lustre.

If the UK really does have a disastrous and disorderly exit from the EU, the public finances will take a huge hit – but more public spending will be essential. The government is concentrating its resources on the frontline areas of schools, hospitals and police, which reinforces the sense that this is about electioneering. The big question now is how Jeremy Corbyn responds. He has rightly opposed austerity. Now he finds himself up against a government that can’t stand it either.

Contributor

Editorial

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