finance

Conservatives have taken their chance to embrace big budget deficits


UK politics & policy updates

This is the winning entry in the 2021 FT Schools programme blog competition with the Political Studies Association: ‘How has coronavirus changed UK politics?’ It was written by Nikolas Boyd-Carpenter, St Paul’s School

Throughout its history, reducing government debt has been a key tenet of British conservatism. From Pitt the Younger’s sinking fund in the 1780s to the sustained surpluses during Harold MacMillan’s time in office in the 1950s and 1960s, Conservative governments have aimed for balanced budgets.

This policy goal was central to the Cameron-Osborne agenda between 2010 and 2016, when a budget surplus was pursued to the point that Osborne proposed a law compelling governments to run a surplus in “normal times”.

Then came the cat among the pigeons. The vote for Brexit and the polarisation it brought changed British politics for ever. In a nation divided perhaps more than ever between young and old, between those who are “open” and those who are “closed”, the Conservatives gained a sudden and unexpected boon: the fall of the Red Wall.

Constituencies that had returned Labour MPs since before the second world war swung to the Tories. This historic restructuring of the British political landscape gave Boris Johnson’s administration a rare opportunity, but one it was ill-equipped to take. It was one thing to win the Red Wall; it was quite another to hold it.

Delivering the change northern voters wanted to see (increased employment opportunities and major improvements to infrastructure) would require high levels of investment. With the government already running a budget deficit of £38bn and the economy stagnant, how could a Conservative administration justify such spending?

The answer lies in the second political gift the Conservatives received, in the form of the unprecedented economic conditions created by the pandemic. Changing centuries of political thought would need a completely unexpected situation, which is precisely what the deepest recession in more than 300 years provided.

The arrival of another economic crisis so soon after the recession of 2007-8, as well as the near-universal unpopularity of the austerity of the 2010s, gave the Conservative party a unique opportunity to reframe its narrative on deficit spending.

These extraordinary economic circumstances allowed the government to embrace Keynesian-style fiscal measures, borrowing almost £400bn in 2020-21 to fund the furlough scheme and subsequent fiscal stimulus programmes. The unquestioning acceptance by Tory politicians of the decision to run large deficits seemingly indefinitely — which runs directly against Thatcherite principles — is very significant.

Much of the recent government spending has been directed at the north. The symbolism of its decision not to step in and solve the Hammersmith Bridge debacle in affluent west London, while supporting the construction of a new coal mine in Cumbria, in addition to the creation of the UK Infrastructure Bank in Leeds and the partial relocation of the Treasury to Darlington, point to a genuine pivot in political focus towards areas that have felt under-represented.

The early evidence — the Conservatives’ conclusive drubbing of Labour in the Hartlepool by-election and their strong showing in local council elections — suggests this may be working.

It is still too soon to tell whether ‘“levelling up” and investment in the north will translate into sustained Conservative victories in the region. Administrations across the UK enjoyed the benefits of incumbency (presiding over a successful vaccination programme and the easing of lockdown restrictions) during the recent elections, while the corruption scandals surrounding the Johnson administration may well cause serious damage.

What is certain, however, is that the pandemic-induced lockdowns allowed the Conservatives to embrace large budget deficits, without which their current levels of spending would be impossible. Brexit may have delivered the Red Wall to the Tories, but it is the pandemic that will help them maintain it.



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