Michael Gove, UK Education Secretary, set a world record in self-abasement last week saying sorry to local government officials, parents, parliament, Tory MPs and anyone else who knows him, for multiple errors in his announcements about cuts in the English school building programme. It doesn’t inspire confidence. Taking responsibility is all very well, but Cabinet ministers shouldn’t be left sounding like an apologetic speaking clock.
It’s a massive embarrassment for the coalition Government. Even without the errors in the list of 700 school refurbishments, this was going to be a difficult sell. Labour didn’t call it the “Building Schools For The Future” programme for nothing. Axeing it looks as though the Tories and their Liberal Democrat allies have callous disregard for the future of the nation’s children.
Cue press stories about kids being taught in leaky shipping containers in Bridgwater and West Somerset, a Tory constituency. The leader of the LibDems in Liverpool says he felt “physically sick” at the scale of the cuts. And this is in a spending area, education, which is supposed to be partially protected from the deficit reduction programme.
What will happen when the real cuts of up to 40% in other departmental budgets start to hit home?
Interest groups are already lining up to plead their case to a media relishing the prospect of endless stories of human misery and bureaucratic incompetence. Disabled groups and housing benefit claimants are talking about changes in welfare leaving them on the streets -- literally. Student organisations are forecasting a “lost generation” as graduate unemployment mounts and more than a million young people are left without jobs.
University staff claim thousands of lecturers will join them if the cuts go ahead. Police insist terrorism and crime will increase if officer numbers drop. BBC journalists are incandescent at what they believe to be Government-inspired cuts in BBC pension arrangements. Public-sector unions have renewed threats of strike action if the Government tries to cut their final salary pensions. And, of course, they will make every effort to publicise the human impact of cuts in council services on the old and the young this winter.
So, police, teachers, parents, pensioners, universities, benefit claimants, disabled groups, housing charities, broadcasters, unions -- the Government is making enemies at an alarming rate. Civil servants are furious at proposals to curb their redundancy payments -- and the Government depends on them to manage the cuts. There’s been speculation that disgruntled civil servants might have deliberately dropped Michael Gove in the doo-doo over school buildings. But I suspect plain old incompetence was really to blame: they’ve simply never had to do anything like this before. A wave of lawsuits is now expected from contractors and parents’ groups following the chaos of the school building programme in England.
The Scottish Government is sitting on the sidelines jeering, saying that this confirms their argument that cutting too deep, too fast can only lead to disaster. But Scotland is only immune because the cuts here are being delayed by a year. This disruption is surely going to hit whoever wins the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections like an express train. There will be popular resentment on a massive scale as disadvantaged groups take to the streets.
Pretty soon there won’t be an interest group in the UK that isn’t up in arms -- and we haven’t even had the spending review yet. That doesn’t come until September, when “Slasher” Osborne, as the Chancellor is increasingly known, will spell out exactly how he intends to make up to 40% cuts in some departmental budgets. Tory MPs are beginning to wonder if ministers have the resolve to see this through. Ministers worry they’ll end up hate figures like Gove.
Thus far, the Government has just about held to the line that all this pain is necessary to save the economy, but that argument is starting to look threadbare. The claim two million private-sector jobs will replace those lost in the public sector depends on heroic assumptions about growth. These assumptions were undermined last week by the IMF when it downgraded Britain’s growth forecast. The abrupt departure last week of the head of the Office for Business Responsibility, Sir Alan Budd, was a further blow to the credibility of the forecasts. He made them.
The Government would be unwise to assume unemployment is no longer a potent political issue. Increased joblessness looks inevitable if Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is serious about tackling incapacity benefits, currently claimed by 2.6 million people.
Tightening the rules could put half a million or more onto the unemployment register. Add the jobs lost in the public sector, and we could be looking at up to four million unemployed.
There is a real question whether it is possible in a democracy to cut spending on this scale. I suspect the Government may already be looking at ways to get off the hook. But if Chancellor Osborne turns round now and says, “Hey, guys I wasn’t serious”, the bond markets could turn nasty very fast. David Cameron could be in danger of repeating the mistakes made by Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath, in the 1970s. He tried to deal with a similar economic crisis through radical spending reforms.
But as unemployment climbed beyond the then unthinkable level of one million, he ordered a U-turn and called on his chancellor, Anthony Barber, to launch a “dash for growth” though further borrowing. The Barber Boom, as it became known, was what ultimately led to hyper-inflation and the IMF taking over the insolvent British economy in 1976.
There is no doubt many of these cuts are unavoidable if Britain is to close its worst-ever peacetime budget deficit of £155 billion. But by provoking a firestorm of public opposition and appearing incompetent, the Conservatives could find their hold on power is tenuous. The coalition is already under strain with despairing LibDems saying they may be wiped out if they stick with the Tories. If things go on like this we may see a Winter of Discontent that makes 1979 look like a little local difficulty in the city cleansing department.