Apparently, Liam Byrne left a note at the Treasury for George Osbourne and his new Lib-Dem buddies which said, simply, “there’s no money left”. Apparently, it was his idea of a joke. I’ve looked hard and there’s not much to be chuckled at. The public purse is in an almighty mess and, as the need to cut the deficit has been well-established in the public mind, the questions are now about where and when the axe will and how much will be chopped off.
Now, there’s a point where the figures are pretty hard to comprehend; tens of billions of pounds is a pretty hard concept to get one’s head round, except in the vaguest sense of it being a ridiculous amount of money. Which is why I was grateful to Dave Cameron for helping me out. He says we need to think of the cuts as being like a household juggling a budget. What family hasn’t had to tighten the financial belt from time to time? Well, the tempting (and slightly snide) answer is to say ‘the Camerons and 90% of the Cabinet’. But that would be churlish, so I’ll resist.
So that’s Dave’s argument for cutting back now and cutting back hard; an analogy with what you and I do week to week and month to month to make sure we have life’s essentials, like food and half-decent broadband. One of the first things to go has been commitments to build new schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme. Such a shame. One things for sure, there’ll be more cuts to come and they’ll make your eyes water.
But, why the rush? Lots of economists say cuts now will lead to a double-dip recession (that’s what the Lib-Dems thought until Dave and Nick did their deal and the boys in yellow decided a double-dip recession might not be so bad).
Don’t think of the deficit as a weekly shopping bill. It’s not. Think of it as a household mortgage. The parallels are there – many of us have gone into debt to buy a house, often quite a painful sum when you think about it (which I try not to). But we manage the debt because it is broken up into little (well, smaller!) chunks paid off each month. If we’re lucky, when times are good, we can pay off a bit more. I don’t go without life’s essentials – milk for my tea – in order to lustily reduce my debts. I may well cut back on life’s treats – whisky for my tea – but I make sure the things that matter are budgeted and paid for.
This is the situation the Lib-Con Government faces. It’s time to cut back on the extras, but not life’s essentials. Education is an essential. So are school buildings fit for our children. They should make a tough choice – a really tough one – and make sure every penny that has been committed to building a new school is protected from cuts and invested in the kinds of schools that the world will envy. In ten years time, when the finances are in order, we should look around, see great schools and say to each other “weren’t Clegg and Cameron brave visionaries – even when times were tough, they knew what mattered”. The chances of this happening are about as good as Liam Byrne’s chances of making it as a stand-up.