Because of the success of the £350m Big Lie, Tory politicians now feel free to make any promise without feeling a matching pressure to keep it.
One of the most effective things Theresa May’s Leave trailblazers did was to make a direct link to health with their claim that if we left the EU we would have £350m per week more for the NHS. This was not just an aggressive campaign tactic. It was a straight forward lie. Normally when people in politics get called out on a lie, they stop. The Leavers carried on. It worked for them. The liars won, and our new ex-Remain PM elevated the chief liar to the role of Foreign Secretary.
That £350m promise has come and gone, and now another stack of promises is being made, equally focused on the here and now needs of the campaign, not the future needs of the NHS. Nobody is likely to get elected by saying openly they want to spend less on the NHS. But whichever party is in power, that is the reality that lies ahead. The poor cyber security systems, the return of the annual winter crisis, the lengthening waits for treatment, patients waiting for hours on trolleys in A&E, doctors and nurses seeing strike action as the only way of being heard … we are already seeing the signs of under investment and failure properly to reform. But once the Brexit economic shrinkage comes, as it will, government will have less to spend, more people to treat, and so more and more cuts to make. Brexit is the word that dare not speak its name in the debate on public services. But they are inextricably linked.
There is a bizarre, unspoken conspiracy going on in this election, between the Tories, Labour and the media, all for their different reasons pretending that it is not really a Brexit election… (though watch May claim the opposite if she gets the huge majority she is after.)
For the Tories, it is the Theresa May election, the first known building of a personality cult around a non-personality. On the day she called the election, it was clear that the prime motivation was a dislike of any opposition – ‘the country is uniting (sic) but Parliament is not’ (as though the role of Parliament was to agree on everything); but since then it is clear she wants to exterminate not just external opposition, but any internal contrary forces too. Hence the near invisibility of all but Amber Rudd, allowed out for a day to front the NHS cyber security mess, and of candidates who are merely extras in ‘Team Theresa’.
For Labour, though Jeremy Corbyn can claim to have something of a cult following, it is not sufficient, so the leadership is desperately trying to persuade itself that if only people outside the cult could see beyond the media hostility to the leader, and study the Party’s policies in detail, all would be fine.
For the media, though most are doing all they can to help May, they also need to try to keep the campaign interesting, which is not easy when the polls are stubbornly suggesting a Tory landslide.
These three strands came to mind in a conversation with a group of Burnley fans outside Bournemouth’s ground at the weekend.
Fan 1: ‘What do you reckon to Labour’s manifesto then?’
Fan 2: (before I could reply) … ‘why don’t you ask him what he thinks of our Champions League squad?’
Fan 1: ‘We’re not in it.’
Fan 2: ‘Exactly, and Labour’s never going to implement its manifesto either.’
Of course, post Brexit, post Trump’s win, post Emmanuel Macron emerging from nowhere to the French Presidency within a year, we are definitely in the ‘anything can happen’ era of politics. Though as Ben Page of Ipsos Mori rather inappropriately put it (mental health campaigner hat on here), if the polls are wrong about this one, ‘there will be a mass suicide of pollsters’.
So the main parties have to keep setting out their policies, and the broadcast media have to cover them as though there is an equal chance of them happening. Yet though we are only having this election because of the new political reality created last June 23, and May’s decision to interpret the referendum result as a vote for a hard Brexit, the debate is being conducted along the lines of old political realities hard wired into the brains of activists and journalists involved in elections of yore.
This means the questions constantly thrown at Labour tend to be in the area of ‘but how will you pay for it all?’ For the Tories, it is all about whether they really are capable of governing for anyone but the people at the top, and whether, to go back to one of Mrs May’s early soundbites, they can shake off the ‘nasty party’ image and go into traditional Labour territory.
But there is a gigantic elephant in the room. It is called Brexit. To flesh that out, it is called ‘the smaller economy that Brexit will deliver’.
We heard a lot about the pound from Leavers, did we not? Always having our own currency, and control over its workings, was a big part of their argument for greater sovereignty. Since when the pound has suffered the kind of devaluation that might easily have brought down governments in the past. This fall in the value of sterling is not some vague technicality. It is a signal of what the world thinks is going to happen to our economy in the future. Shrink! Yet none of the parties seem to want to talk about it.
Labour don’t want to say there will be a smaller economy and less money for public services post Brexit, because it begs the question why they didn’t fight harder to stop it; added to which the questions about how they fund the big changes in their manifesto become even harder. The Tories don’t want to talk about it because it challenges their La La Land claims that we are going to come out of the single market and the customs union and retain ‘the exact same benefits’; that we are going to get such a good exit deal, and even better trade deals around the world, that far from shrinking we are going to grow as ‘Global Britain’ (how long before we get a strong and stable book of her vacuous clips?) takes shape.
One thing I will give May … she is bloody good at saying convincingly things that she must know deep down are, to quote Emily Thornberry, complete bollocks. Like the line that every vote strengthens her hand in negotiations with the EU. Nonsense. Merkel, Macron et al couldn’t give a damn about the size of the majority. They deal with whoever the PM may be. Like the line that out of the EU we can have greater workers’ rights – when so many of the Hard Brexit MPs she is trying to bring in fought for Leave precisely because they want to get European protection, of workers, of the environment, of lots else besides, off their backs. Like the line that Brexit will strengthen the Union, a claim which both Scotland and Northern Ireland are putting severely to the test.
Because of the success of the £350m Big Lie, Tory politicians now feel free to make any promise without feeling a matching pressure to keep it. It’s why May felt no qualms at all about tearing up her predecessor’s Fixed Term Parliament Act, so as to be able to welch on her oft-stated commitment not to call a snap election; and why she has recommitted to the same promise David Cameron made on getting immigration numbers to the tens of thousands, even as Cabinet colleagues and business warn her that like him she won’t be able to keep it.
As for her claim to have mental health as a ‘priority’ – don’t get me going. She has promised £15m for pilots on mental health first aid in schools, £10m to fund graduates going into mental health work as part of the Think Ahead programme, £67.7m for digital mental health services – all welcome, but these sums are minuscule set alongside the need, and the 8% fall in mental health funding during the austerity years.
The refrain that it is ‘not just about the money’, while right given the importance of attitude and understanding, is nonetheless a useful cover for under investment, while her central pledge that WITHIN FOUR YEARS no young person would have to travel far from their own area for psychiatric treatment was a signal of woeful under-ambition for something described as a ‘priority’. Two years to deliver Brexit, she claims. Four years to stop your child having to travel from one end of the country to another for a psychiatric bed. Ludicrous. Shameful.
May has one priority – to deliver Brexit at any cost. We have already seen some of that cost in the falling pound, and rising inflation (though hats off to the media for barely mentioning the B for Brexit word in most of the coverage). As she steers the economy towards the cliff-edge, we had better understand she is taking our NHS and other public services along for the ride. I’m not sure anyone voted for any of that last June. But it seems like they’re sure as hell voting for it now.