It may be neither fair nor particularly rational, but in the past three weeks or so Boris Johnson and his allies have been buoyed up by rising public optimism. Thanks to the vaccination programme and the expectations swirling around the somewhat provisional back-to-normal date of 21 June, the government’s dire handling of so much of the pandemic has receded from view.
The prime minister looks both very lucky, and a more formidable leader than he seemed in the grim days of late 2020; Keir Starmer seems to have stalled. Meanwhile, even people with an understandably cautious sense of the immediate future can surely warm to the prospect of packed pub gardens, revived music festivals and family reunions.
If the resulting political shift endures, it will be underpinned by one key element of Johnson’s public persona. Austerity, he has repeatedly insisted, is over. That may not reflect the enduring Tory beliefs crystallised by Rishi Sunak’s recent insistence that government borrowing to finance greater spending is “morally, economically and politically” wrong. Indeed, in Wednesday’s budget the chancellor will reportedly pledge to keep a tight grip on day-to-day spending, introduce tax rises and point towards an eventual fiscal reckoning.
But Johnson is at pains to be seen as the figurehead of the hazy crusade termed “levelling up” – and whatever Sunak’s basic instincts, the budget will surely be sold to us as the work of a government that has a keen sense of its current responsibilities, a social conscience and big plans.
The sheer level of current public spending – and borrowing – seems to back that up. But beyond Westminster, spending cuts are not only continuing but suddenly getting worse. Last month it emerged that at least 12 councils in England were in emergency talks with the government to avoid bankruptcy, and across the country budget crises are becoming the norm.
Despite some emergency help from central government, the financial gaps that councils are facing remain huge – and urban areas seem to be particularly affected. Manchester city council is facing cuts in the next financial year of £41m; in nearby Bolton, the figure is £35m. The London borough of Newham will put through “cuts and savings” of £43m by April 2023, £30m of it this year. The council in Leeds is now facing mind-boggling economies of £87m, the single biggest amount to be taken out of its spending since the start of austerity – and which, according to the city’s new leader, James Lewis, could be followed by further cuts of as much as £60m unless the government takes decisive action. As he told me last week: “It means that any ambition we have to do anything other than the basics will be really limited. It’s an incredibly grim picture.”
The path that has led to all this is plain enough. Unlike the government, councils have to set balanced annual budgets for spending on services. Over the last decade, the money they…
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