Political strategists call it ‘show, don’t tell’. The technique whereby our politicians demonstrate to a cynical electorate through actions – rather t
Political strategists call it ‘show, don’t tell’. The technique whereby our politicians demonstrate to a cynical electorate through actions – rather than honeyed words – how they’re delivering on their promises.
But as Philip Hammond prepares to stand at the despatch box on Monday to deliver his third – and possibly final – review of the nation’s finances, the fear among his colleagues is that the Chancellor is about to be forced to unveil a tell-don’t-show Budget, at the behest of the tell-don’t-show Prime Minister.
Earlier this month, Theresa May made a dramatic announcement. The age of austerity was drawing to a close. ‘A decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off,’ she told the Tory conference.
Unfortunately, it was a dramatic announcement that had been dramatically announced before. At the fateful launch of her Election manifesto in May 2017, the PM also claimed austerity was being junked.
Mirroring the omission that had cost Ed Miliband the premiership, she shunned any mention of Britain’s eye-watering debt, and instead pledged lower taxes, record schools funding and the most ambitious programme of investment in the NHS in the nation’s history.
But with no evidence to support her vision of a public sector renaissance that wasn’t funded by soaring taxes, the voters duly gave her plans the raspberry. Last June she had another go. Forget austerity, it was time to splash the cash. In particular, to splash it all over the wards and operating theatres of the NHS.
‘We cannot continue to put a sticking plaster on the NHS,’ Mrs May declared, before announcing an unprecedented £20 billion increase in the annual budget by 2023. Some of it would be paid for by the Brexit dividend, the rest from other sources, as yet to be determined. But people didn’t need to bother themselves with pedantic queries like ‘where’s the money coming from’?
They should just celebrate the fact ‘we can secure this great national inheritance for generations to come’, she proclaimed.
And again, the people gave the proposal a thumbs-down. Lacking proof that the Government was putting this hypothetical pot of money where its mouth was, only 14 per cent questioned told pollsters MORI they believed the pledge would lead to improvements in the NHS.
Yet, with the doggedness that has become her hallmark, the Prime Minister has not given up. The details of Monday’s Budget are shrouded in secrecy. But a few themes are emerging. More cash for adult care and defence. More cash in the pockets of the hard-pressed motorist. And, at its heart, the big reveal on how the £20billion for the NHS is going to be funded.
Whatever conjuring tricks Hammond deploys will be cheered by Tory MPs. But the political danger for Mrs May is that the public service funding announcement cart is again being placed before the public service delivery horse. As one Minister points out: ‘I’d bite your hand off for that amount of spending for my department, but No10 thinks this is a game changer – but they haven’t thought it through’.
In briefings to the Cabinet, Hammond and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have set out the detailed timings of the financial settlement. First there is Monday’s funding statement. Or re-statement. Then, in December, Hancock will publish his ten-year health spending plan, which will detail where the money will be allocated.
Then, in April, the funds will start to feed through to the front line. But it will be staggered – £4billion in year one, £8billion in year two and £12billion in year three. As Ministers acknowledge, there will then be a further lag before the investment starts to have a perceptible impact on service delivery. And another delay before that impact itself creates a more positive perception among the public of the state of their beloved NHS.
All this against the backdrop of an annual winter bed crisis, daily Labour taunts of ‘you told us the funding crisis was over!’, and the ominous ticking of the 2022 General Election doomsday clock.
Taken in isolation, these issues would be manageable. But they cannot be taken in isolation. They now need to be set alongside the PM’s wider pledge that austerity is ending across the board.
‘Calling an end to austerity’s the right approach,’ a Cabinet Minister tells me ‘but you can’t just say it. You have to have a plan for delivering it. And she doesn’t.’
Astonishingly, according to another Cabinet insider, the headlines surrounding the austerity section of May’s speech took her and her team by surprise. ‘They didn’t think it would get such a big reaction,’ he explains. It certainly took Hammond by surprise, generating sympathy from normally critical colleagues. ‘I don’t often defend him, but he’s just had this dropped on him,’ one says. A Treasury source tersely confirms ‘it was not done with Philip’s agreement or approval’.
From No10’s perspective, an announcement on the formal ending of austerity is essential for wresting control of the domestic – ie non-Brexit – agenda from Jeremy Corbyn’s icy, socialist grip.
‘He’s been successful in drumming in “austerity, austerity, austerity”,’ a No10 official says. ‘Now we have to begin drumming in “austerity’s over, austerity’s over, austerity’s over”.’
But some Cabinet Ministers believe this represents a strategic misstep. ‘We can’t win an argument with Corbyn on who’s going to spend the most on public services. It’s like saying to someone, “Do you want a half-fat treat or a full-fat treat?” The implication being they will always opt for a full-fat Corbyn over a half-fat May.’
The Prime Minister’s troubled tenure has been punctuated by some stirring rhetoric: her vow to eradicate the ‘burning injustices’ and her defiant response to the Salzburg ambush where she issued the steely warning ‘let nobody be in any doubt… we are preparing for no deal’.
But all too often those words have not been matched by deeds. The multi-billion-pound question is: will this time be any different?