The return of David Cameron shows Rishi Sunak has no interest in reversing austerity

'Cameron was anything but a centrist, but he “did a remarkably good job of playing one on television.'

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

Rishi Sunak’s first year as Prime Minister has been one of repeated failure and false starts. Trailed as a return to competent, centre right Government after the serial disasters of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, Sunak has instead appeared unable to keep the right of his party in check. He has lacked the political instincts necessary to set a path and keep to it, or to give the country much understanding of what he wants to achieve as Prime Minister.

The high point perhaps was the announcement of the Windsor Framework in February. It largely brought to an end arguments with the EU over Northern Ireland trade and enabled Sunak to symbolically distance himself from his two predecessors, both of whom had delighted in baiting Brussels by threatening to renege on the Brexit agreement in defiance of international law. By signing the Framework Sunak ended the Brexit war with Brussels and signalled a return to the international mainstream and the rule of law.

Yet since then Sunak has – in part to keep his right wing on side, in part because he evidently believed there were votes in it – shifted further and further to the right. The obvious examples are his ditching of net zero commitments, even as global temperatures outstrip expected rises, and his obsession with ending small boat crossings in the Channel. On the latter issue he has, like his predecessors, railed against the law, whether the UK Supreme Court or the (non-EU) European Court of Human Rights.

Neither has shifted the polls. There is broad public support for action on carbon emissions, while his rhetoric on small boats has not been matched by results – indeed anyone with understanding of asylum is convinced that his actions will do nothing to reduce crossings, while his refusal to countenance actions that would (for example, establishing safe and legal routes) just makes the problem worse.

Sunak looks out of touch and incompetent, a toxic combination. Even the fall in inflation has happened despite him, not because of his leadership. Instead of taking action, perhaps by temporarily raising taxes on the wealthy to reduce inflationary pressures, he delegated the job to the Bank of England, loading all the pain onto mortgage holders and other borrowers.  

With last week’s belated sacking of Suella Braverman and appointment of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary, Sunak appears to be making a pitch for the centre ground, or at least a version of the right that is less toxic.

It is this that Labour and wavering voters should pay attention to. As Stephen Bush argues in the FT, Cameron was anything but a centrist, but he “did a remarkably good job of playing one on television.”

Far from pursuing a centrist path Cameron’s government instituted radical reforms across the state, significant tax cuts and reductions in public spending that have never been reversed. The result is the hollowed out public realm inherited by Sunak and which will, should the polls hold, come to Labour.

The coalition government was effective in its pursuit of a right wing agenda. As chancellor, George Osborne delivered significant tax cuts for individuals and reduced the size and scope of the state. The UK’s benefits system, never particularly generous, is now among the most parsimonious in the OECD.

The UK’s tax burden is the largest since the 1940s, but not because the state is doing more than it was in 2010. The reverse is sadly true, hence the appalling outcomes we see on child poverty, inequality, social services and the NHS, and the dilapidated public realm from the health and education estates to public transport.

Tax is high because of errors including austerity (which most economists derided at the time), Brexit and Liz Truss’ misjudgement, plus the ever increasing cost of healthcare for the elderly.

Sunak’s invitation to Cameron then is not a shift to the centre ground, but one from a shrill, incompetent version of the right (despite her obsession Braverman ran a failing asylum system and a failing Home Office) to a version which may be just as radical but more capable and articulately presented.

By doing so Sunak is misreading the times. This is not 2010. The inevitable result of Cameron and Osborne’s stringent cuts to the public realm, and their successors’ refusal to change course, is strongly present in the public mind.

The travails of the NHS are most paramount: we all now surely know someone who got their treatment too late, waited too long for an ambulance, or is wasting years on a waiting list when in better times they would have been seen, treated, and once again able to lead a normal life.

For all his failings Johnson knew this, hence his pledge to level up the country, a factor in his 2019 victory too often overlooked. Had he followed through the Conservatives would be in a far stronger position now.

Sunak’s failure to recognise this will harm him politically. In tangible terms his failure to see that fixing the NHS – rather than announcing yet more crackdowns on people with disabilities and benefit claimants – would do more to increase productivity and job take up continues to astound, but this is his and his party’s myopia. It is unlikely to shift before the next election.

Labour is understandably cautious about making large spending announcements, particularly with the tax take so high and the economy on life support. But the public are in no mood for more cuts, more austerity, more Cameron-era cuts and paring back of the public services that keep us and society functioning.

Sunak shows no interest in undoing austerity. He has hired its architect. He has all but forgotten his pledge to bring down NHS waiting times, in this week’s autumn statement focusing on tax cuts above the restoration of public services.

Labour needs to build on its credible plan for growth with a clear indication that restoring public services will be its driving mission. Only the restoration of public services, in particular health, dental and social care, will enable people of any age, income, ability or demographic to live dignified, productive and healthy lives.

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