Welcome to the doom loop of Tory Britain: an austerity that kills, a democracy routed | Aditya Chakrabortty

Voters are told that cuts will deliver stability. But we are returning to the very playbook that gave us Brexit and the chaos that followed

As you may have heard, this country has a new ruler. Jeremy Hunt now sets the government’s course and even, critics carp, decides who sits around the cabinet table (so long, Suella Braverman, and thanks for all the tofu jokes); Liz Truss is merely his barely-human shield. But very few of this week’s tributes to the “real prime minister” mention that precisely 18 people voted for him to take that job. That is the grand total of MPs who backed Hunt in this summer’s Tory leadership contest, from which he was ejected in the very first round. Out of eight contenders, he came eighth. “Who voted for this?” Truss was asked when she unveiled her mini-budget. As Hunt dismantles her entire programme we know who voted for him, down to their very names. They make up 0.00003% of the population.

Yet rather than dismay, what pours forth from the politico-media classes is undiluted relief. “It is just so good to have a grownup in the room, someone who commands respect,” gushes one senior Tory MP. Others praise the new boss as a “calming influence” on all-important financial markets, because they must be appeased and Hunt fancies himself as the gilt-whisperer.

In just over a week, the new chancellor will return to the Commons armed with £30bn or more in spending cuts aimed at restoring credibility with investors. For the vast array of politicians and pundits this is terrible – and essential. After weeks of City chaos, and scoldings from Larry Summers and the IMF, even the most liberal of commentators have bought into a dangerous idea: that you can never buck “the markets”.

Behind this mentality lies a whole mix of things, including the very understandable schadenfreude that comes with watching the Britannia Unchained lot find out that the markets don’t actually love them back. And who wouldn’t find joy in seeing the double-breasted, vacant-eyed, permanently post-prandial beetroots who between them make up the Conservative parliamentary party await an electoral tide that will sweep them out into generational oblivion? But the “markets know best” is not the lesson of the past few weeks, or the pandemic, or the bankers’ bailout before it. And believing so puts you on a collision course with voters.

You can see the result today: the UK is once again in the grip of austerity and anti-democratic politics – when we got into this crisis precisely because of austerity and democratic failure. The vast spending cuts made by George Osborne wrecked our hospitals, our schools and our town halls, and stoked the frustrations that ensured Brexit. I heard it over and over while reporting before the referendum – passersby declaring they were voting out, and citing as their reason nothing to do with Brussels and almost everything to do with the Tories. Their mum’s wait for an operation, their kids’ inability to get a council house, the loss of industry, the black hole left by privatisation: 40 years of bombed-out economics and bullshit politics.

Take back control? From set-up to punchline, the cosmic bad joke of Truss’s premiership says it all about who runs this country – and on whose terms. Anointed by press barons, she was destroyed by dark-money rightwing thinktanks – while all along the ever-shrinking Tory membership was so desperate for a winner it raised barely an eyebrow in scrutiny. The woman today reviled by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph is the same one they huffed and puffed into No 10. She owes them her job; they owe the rest of us a grovelling apology. As for the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute, the lead-balloon budget is their joint production. Even as Kwasi Kwarteng delivered it, even as the pound tanked, these opaque and unaccountable groupuscules jostled to claim their intellectual property. This is their Lehman moment: the point at which, like the bankers, they get everything for which they’d ever asked – and the resulting disaster proves so big the public has to pick up the bill.

As with the banking crash, voters are told that only technocratic rule and austerity will deliver stability, when over the past decade that combination served up 330,000 excess deaths, plus Nigel Farage. Just imagine the toxic politics that will escape the lab this time, now the Tory party is falling to bits and the only part of the right still thriving is on its extreme fringes.

To prove how far we have regressed, the politician who is once again everywhere is Osborne, easily the most ruinous Conservative minister this century. Others might name the layabout liar Boris Johnson or Truss the malfunctioning android, but it was Osborne who robbed Britain of a future. In the 2010s, interest rates hit rock-bottom and markets were practically screaming for governments to spend and invest. The UK could have rethought and rebuilt its post-crash economic model, but he chose to trample on the working poor and to cut, cut, cut. He is a big reason why Tory economics now has only two settings: cutting taxes for the rich, which never produces growth, or pursuing austerity that never brings prosperity.

Even today, Hunt is copying Osborne’s moves, right down to outsourcing politics to the financiers – just look at the newly installed panel of economic advisers, which comprises just two representatives of giant asset managers and two hedge-funders. Yet Jeremy cannot be George, because his role model cut public services so far there is nothing of substance left to take without them falling over. Now inflation is in double digits (unlike the prime minister’s approval ratings), it is devouring every Whitehall budget.

This is the UK’s horrific doom-loop, where voters are told the untenable is inevitable, while the sensibles keep mouthing stupidities and capitalists mirthlessly toast a cadaverous capitalism. Further downstream, surveys suggest over half (54%) of the 4m households on universal credit have gone without food in the last month, sick people in Wales can wait nearly two days inside an ambulance before getting admitted to A&E, and about 100,000 households each month are rolling off their mortgages into financial disaster.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Even in this decade of higher interest rates and battles for resources, politicians can invest and reduce inequality – provided they present a thorough plan that defines clear budgetary guidelines, regulates and ties down finance, takes longer-term horizons on both investment and borrowing and dramatically raises wealth taxes. Follow these broad principles and you have a fighting chance of stopping finance from squeezing democracy to death.

But still top journalists prefer to guess how many days Truss will last on death row, or bet on who gets to be the Tory tail-ender. Could it be Rishi Sunak, who boasted of bilking Tyneside to bribe Tunbridge Wells? Or Penny Mordaunt, whose ministerial achievements are so minute, Specsavers use them for the lowest line of their eye-test chart? Why worry about the life chances of British democracy when you can have such fun gassing about its morbid symptoms?

  • Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist


Aditya Chakrabortty

The GuardianTramp

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