To understand just how weird the coronavirus has made reading about the Government’s finances, you only have to cast your mind back to last winter’s election campaign. In last December’s manifesto, the Conservatives were promising to spend an additional £2.9bn extra a year by 2024, the most expensive of these spending commitments being £900m to employ 50,000 more nurses in English hospitals. After the election, with the hands of ministers forced by the pandemic, the British Exchequer ended up forking out more than double the entire Government’s promised spending increases—not in four years, but in four months. This short but remarkable story will be retold again and again by British historians for years to come.
Less than a year ago, media reports of the Conservatives parking their tanks on Labour’s lawn were provoked by little more than a promise to increase annual spending by £2.9 billion. (Labour, on the other hand, were promising an £83bn increase, but don’t let that get in the way of a good media narrative.) And yet, in only the month of April, the government borrowed a staggering £62bn, more than the entire deficit for the previous financial year. The Independent Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that by the end of this financial year the UK government deficit will have crossed the peacetime record of £300bn.
No British government has presided over such levels of intervention in the economy since World War Two. Not only have the measures been well-received across the political spectrum, but they are also comparatively generous by international standards. In an analysis of 166 countries’ response to the pandemic by a Columbia University economics professor, Ceyhun Elgin, the UK’s response was the fifth most aggressive when both government spending and the actions of the Bank of England were taken into account.
For the Conservative Party, which has spent the last ten years cultivating a brand of economic prudence and fiscal responsibility—driven by an ideological desire for a smaller state—the last few months will have left more than a few politicians with a severe case of whiplash. The last time the economy blew up in the UK Government’s face because of a global crisis, Labour was in charge, and Conservatives have spent the last ten years reminding the British public of that fact.
Now covered in ash and embers of their own, they find themselves in the unenviable position of contradicting a decade of political messaging. Having once chastised others for turning to debt in a time of crisis, and then made hay over the poor state of the public finances, the Tories have suddenly discovered that borrowing money during a global pandemic doesn’t look like such a bad idea after all. A reminder that assuming power doesn’t just have a corrupting influence, it can also make you forgetful.
Politicians are lucky that voters’ memories are short. If they were longer, they might remember the Conservatives’ commitment in 2010 to eliminate the deficit by 2015 (which it didn’t meet), and another it made after re-election in 2015 (which it abandoned). What is more important (at least on election day) is that the Conservative Party have maintained the impression of fiscal responsibility. They may not have been meeting their targets, but they’re trying —or so the thinking goes.
The last decade’s political battles on the economy have left the Conservatives open to the charge of hypocrisy. Having employed the same Keynesian methods of borrowing to shore up the economy as the Brown Government did in the aftermath of the financial crisis, how the Conservative government explains its reasons for doing the same twelve years later will be especially revealing. With tax receipts for April down by 26.5% on the same month a year earlier, it is clear that the pandemic will leave Britain’s finances with a gaping hole, and one that will be with us for at least a generation. The question is: is Britain in line for another round of austerity and budget cuts of the kind we’ve become used to since 2010? And if not, why not?
There are many in the party who are reluctant to replay the austerity strategy that has characterised the Conservative approach to the economy since the financial crisis. Former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, has said he would be happy to see the debt “paid off over 50 years,” calling another attempt at austerity a “bonkers idea,” and there is plenty of historical precedent for a longer-term payment plan. It took over six decades for Britain to pay back loans it took out with the United States and Canada following World War Two, and nearly two hundred for taxpayers to pay off debts accrued when the Government paid compensation to slave owners in 1833. How much did the slave owner’s compensation total? Just over £300bn in today’s money—almost identical to this year’s record-breaking borrowing estimate from the Office for Budget Responsibility.
If a debt accrued compensating those who owned other human beings like cattle can be paid off over two hundred years, why not the cost of a global pandemic? Self-appointed level-heads will explain that it is not that simple, as they always do. But those at the sharp end of another round of austerity will inevitably ask: why not?
Peddlers of fast debt-reduction in the years to come (particularly those in the Conservative Party) will have to look these arguments in the face and explain how borrowing record sums to protect the economy is good, but staggering debt repayment to protect the economy is bad. To many voters, millions of whom are already exhausted by years of budget-tightening, any attempt to place the coronavirus debt on the shoulders of those who had to live through it will not only look gratuitous, but cruel.
After a decade in Government, but less than a year into Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister, the Conservatives are discovering the difficulty of running an administration that straddles not only two eras, but two kinds of economic thinking. When the dust fades on the coronavirus pandemic, the party will be left with a choice. Revert to type and the kind of reasoning that made debt and deficit reduction the holy grail, or embrace a more pragmatic approach, and accept that borrowing to invest can be useful when faced with generation-defining problems. Should they choose the latter, we can be sure the Labour Party will have plenty to say about it.