Theresa May pledges end to austerity in Tory conference speech
Theresa May has made a bold pledge to bring a decade of austerity to a close, as she appealed to the public over the heads of her squabbling party to back her to deliver a Brexit deal.
Speaking in Birmingham on Wednesday at the end of the Conservatives’ annual conference, which was marred by repeated clashes over Europe, May cast aside the chancellor’s concerns about the health of the country’s finances and signalled Brexit would mark an end to public spending cuts.
Despite widespread speculation about her future, May also made several domestic policy announcements in an attempt to show she has not been blown off course by Brexit or noisy critics led by Boris Johnson.
Lifting the cap on local authorities borrowing to build new council homes.
Setting new targets for early cancer detection as part of a new “cancer strategy”.
Freezing fuel duty for the ninth consecutive year.
But her most eye-catching pledge was the promise to bring to an end the decade-long programme of spending cuts imposed after the banking bailouts.
“When we’ve secured a good Brexit deal for Britain, at the spending review next year we will set out our approach for the future,” she said. “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.
“There must be no return to the uncontrolled borrowing of the past. No undoing all the progress of the last eight years. No taking Britain back to square one. But the British people need to know that the end is in sight. And our message to them must be this: we get it.”
Experts were sceptical about the idea of drawing a line under austerity in 2019. Torsten Bell, the director of the Resolution Foundation thinktank, said: “The public and most politicians are tired of austerity, but we’re a long way off from actually ending it.”
Current government plans involve continuing to reduce the deficit until the second half of the 2020s, with significant cuts to many departments’ budgets pencilled in. May’s speech marks a significant change in rhetoric but actually ending the current era of public spending restraint will involve not words but significant tax rises and higher borrowing.
The prime minister’s remarks were an effort to convince the public that “our future is full of promise”; but they also appeared to signal Conservative anxieties that Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity narrative has become “the new political mainstream”, as the Labour leader claimed in his own well-received conference speech last week.
In a self-deprecating move aides later insisted was unplanned, May appeared on stage dancing to Abba’s Dancing Queen – and made a series of pointed calls for her party to unite.