In this election the Conservative party have tried to be as uncontroversial, and as quiet as possible. However, this caution has not been extended with regard to public spending — an area where their language has notably changed compared to previous elections. Boris Johnson has criticised the policies of Cameron and Osborne, stating in a recent interview with The Spectator that “austerity was never the way forward”. This supposed desire of Johnson’s to move away from austerity marks a massive shift in the electioneering of the modern Conservative party.
Think back to 2015 when the Conservative message was so focused on its ‘long-term economic plan,’ which involved cutting public spending dramatically to reduce the deficit. Theresa May continued this message of frugality from 2017, by continually insisting that “there isn’t a magic money”. Boris Johnson has, very surprisingly for a Conservative, made public spending a key part of his campaign.
His signature spending pledges are to increase the number of nurses by 50,000 and to hire 20,000 police officers. These figures put forward in the Conservative manifesto have been massaged however. Of these 50,000 new nurses, 18,500 are already people working in the NHS who the Conservatives merely hope to retain. Similarly the new 20,000 police officers that will be recruited will just replace the 20,000 that had been cut by the party since 2010.
The fact that these figures mislead suggests that Johnson has not diverted fiscally from his predecessors as much as he likes to suppose. This is supported by the IFS’ analysis which suggests the Conservatives are proposing only an additional £2.9 billion a year on day-to-day spending by 2024, peanuts compared to Labour’s £98 billion. Similarly, if the Conservative’s manifesto plans were delivered, public service spending outside of health would still be 14% lower in 2023-24 than it was in 2010-11.
Public spending is not going to be cut under Johnson but it will only going to be very modestly increased, especially in comparison to Labour’s spending plans. In this case why doesn’t Johnson campaign on the language of frugality and austerity? Why doesn’t he continue the classic attacks on tax and spending that had worked for his predecessors? Ultimately because the voters he needs to attract at this election make it impossible.
Johnson’s toxicity among Remainers mean that his coalition of voters in this election is fundamentally different to that of David Cameron. His strategy to win a majority is essentially to unite the Leave vote of 2016. To do this he needs to win votes from traditional Labour voters in the Midlands, the North and Wales and for this to happen he needs to convince them that public services, on which they rely massively, will not be cut.
Both main party leaders realise that public services, and in particular the NHS, are crucial to this election. This is why Johnson is so keen to put forward the idea of 50,000 nurses and why Corbyn continues to reiterate Conservative plans to sell the NHS off in a trade deal with Trump. Ultimately, if Johnson convinces these ex-Labour voters that he can be trusted on the NHS, then we are headed for another 5 years of Tory rule.
Image: Chatham House via Flickr