The final 10 seem oblivious of the scale of our national catastrophe, from schools to hospitals to homelessness. Wasn’t this once the ‘competent party’?
Imagine that some Rip Van Winkle, in a coma since 2010, suddenly wakes to look around and see what’s happening as the Tories choose our next prime minister. He’s an acute social observer, so he starts to check the facts of this decade and is shocked by what he finds.Wherever he looks, whatever he checks, he finds the scars of austerity are all around – and he assumes that’s what the candidates will confront.
Talking to staff from his hospital bed he hears of 100,000 unfilled vacancies for overstressed NHS staff, with 2 million more people on hospital waiting lists. What kind of aftercare will he get, he asks? Not much, they say, with 1.4 million fewer frail people getting any social care, due to local councils stripped of half their funds.
Van Winkle starts to Google key social indicators and grows increasingly appalled. Schools, many dilapidated, have lost funds of 8% per pupil, with sixth forms and colleges cut by 16%, losing teachers. Art, dance, design, music and drama teachers have been stripped out in many schools after the former education secretary Michael Gove downgraded them for his Gradgrind five English Baccalaureate subjects. He is sad to see that Sure Start children’s centres barely exist.
Children are hungry, he finds, as the threshold for free school meals has risen steeply. He checks the Institute for Fiscal Studies site and cries, Good grief! Pay has stagnated, and incomes still haven’t caught up with a decade ago, unknown since Napoleonic times. Good God, he exclaims when he finds four in 10 children are living in poverty, the highest proportion for 60 years. He doesn’t recognise the term “food bank”, but he finds there are now more than 2,000, catering for a million hungry families. Why? He checks what happened to social security, and sees the gigantic size of benefit cuts.
Look, he tells the patient in the next bed. For the first time in our lives, longevity is falling not rising: a year has been cropped off his lifespan while he slept. Worse, infant mortality has risen for the past two years – something unknown in his lifetime. The number of children in care has doubled, as cutbacks in social workers mean there’s no one to help families before they reach crisis.
Outside the window, he can see rough sleepers huddled against hospital walls: sure enough, he checks to find them up by 250%. How’s the economy? Graphs for growth, per-capita income and public spending are too depressing to go on reading. But he notes there are twice as many billionaires as a decade ago, and 30% have avoided tax by keeping their cash offshore.
When Van Winkle first woke, he had been eager to find out what brave new world of social progress had sprung up in his absence. Depressed, he turns on the bedside TV. On the news channel he finds an array of press conferences for prime ministerial candidates. He watches them strut their stuff in interviews, and follows their self-promoting newspaper articles. The word Brexit at first puzzles him, but then appals him as he pieces together the mighty political catastrophe that has befallen the country. Boris Johnsonas frontrunner makes him yearn to fall back into a coma. He notes the rank hypocrisy of Gove snorting coke and the next day writing a bombastic anti-drug column in the Times. But even that seems less outrageous than Johnson’s sociopathic knack for cheating, lying and misleading voters, mysteriously forever invulnerable.
But Van Winkle has more pressing questions as he listens to the candidates’ policy pitches, horribly familiar and apparently ignorant of the depth of the decade’s damage. Are they all in denial? Dominic Raab will cut 5p off the basic income tax rate, set the top rate at 35% and now hurries to cut national insurance for the lowest paid. Jeremy Hunt will drop corporation tax to just 12.5% – from 28% a decade ago – and abolish tuition fees for graduates if they become entrepreneurs (expect a steep rise in bogus “self-employed” people). And he will double defence spending, yes double!
Johnson will refuse to pay our £39bn debt to the European Union, making Britain a rogue state, while he cuts tax for the 3 million best-off, raising the 40% threshold from £50,000 to £80,000. The IFS says this will especially benefit rich pensioners – and costs £9.6bn – yet Johnson proclaims: “I am a One Nation Conservative!” He recently called for cuts to stamp duty and capital gains too – bonanzas for the well off. His promise of £5,000 for every pupil exploded as it turned out to add just 0.1% to the schools budget. But that’s just naughty Boris.
Gove will abolish VAT, swapping it for a lesser sales tax. “I value every individual. I want everyone to be the author of their own life story” – which sounds as if that means no one should expect help from the state for anything. Esther McVey would also purloin the £39bn owed to the EU, to spend on a public sector pay rise. Only Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart eschew the fairyland of competing tax cuts. As for Brexit, whether it’s “Ready to Lead” with Gove or “Ready for Raab”, this is all dreamland Brextasy.
Van Winkle sinks into gloom at candidates’ familiar boasts that Britain will rule the waves again. These ministers, responsible for every aspect of British life, seem utterly oblivious of the mountain to climb just to get back to 2010, yet promise everything “world class” and “world beating”. “I want to make Britain walk tall in the world again,” proclaims Hunt. “I want to make us the fastest growing most dynamic, pro-business, pro-enterprise, hi-tech economy in Europe.” The Brexit reflex is just another twitch of the old imperial fantasy, Van Winkle notes. Why can’t our politicians express a dignified patriotic love of country without world-class bragging that only makes us look absurd in our current state?
Gove does it too: “With Brexit, this can be the best country in the world.” He promises to “make Britain the best place to live, learn, raise a family, achieve your potential, and start and run a business”. Is that restoring benefits, raising school spending to our competitors’ level, repairing social care and health – while cutting taxes too? In fact-free mode, Gove boasts how many schools he improved.
By now Van Winkle is weary of the backstories paraded: fish-dealer father, bus-driver father, time in care, rambling in Afghanistan, running a business. Who cares? Just start with tax and spend numbers that add up. Wasn’t this once the competent party? Which of them will admit the state into which they have plunged the country? All are clueless as to what it would take to repair.
Pondering so many tax cuts, Van Winkle wonders what other public services could be sliced away? He is glad to see he is not alone: Paul Johnson, IFS guru, has blown the whole lot of them to kingdom come, totting up their billions of spending and billions of tax cuts, appalled they have “no fiscal strategy”, no “seriousness” – leaving treasury heads banging on their desks. Van Winkle’s head aches and he calls for pain relief.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist