This article is an on-site version of our Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday.
Good morning. Austerity in the UK became politically fraught gradually, then suddenly. For most people, it was not all that obvious that the state was spending less in 2015 than in 2010.
But today, whether it is because more people are finding they need to have private healthcare, or because they see more rough sleeping, or because of the backlogs in both UK asylum applications and the courts, the political costs of further cuts are more obvious.
That’s one reason why Jeremy Hunt opted to punt many of the cuts to public spending to later down the line. As a new FT analysis makes clear, backlogs are the order of the day across much of the British state. Some thoughts on the politics and policy of all that below.
Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to [email protected].
UK public services face chronic backlogs across large parts of the public realm, ranging from the courts to the health service to border control, analysis by the FT has found. Here are the two charts that will haunt Conservative MPs: tens of thousands of asylum applications have gone unprocessed.
Nor can this increase solely be seen as a consequence of increased demand: although applications have doubled in the past five years, the backlog has increased fourfold in the same time.
The good(ish) news here for Conservatives is that one way they can get themselves out of the mess of impossible promises is just to make some promises that are actually deliverable. They could pledge to successfully process more asylum claims on any given day than there are new claimants arriving to the UK. The simple act of “meaningfully reducing this backlog” is now a victory!
Add to that a bunch of unhelpful features of the UK system. As Sarah O’Connor set out in her column a few months back, the UK stands alone internationally in not letting asylum seekers work. That adds to the cost of housing asylum seekers and deepens the UK’s labour market difficulties. There are some quick wins here, even if you don’t want to touch things that we know work well overseas but are politically contentious at Westminster, such as ID cards.
There is less good news as far as the NHS is concerned, where more than 7mn people are now waiting for non-urgent or elective treatment. Part of the problem of course is that a “non-urgent” problem may become more acute and require more intensive care than it would have had it been dealt with earlier. The crisis in the NHS is also probably contributing to the UK’s very tight labour market, as John Burn-Murdoch explains here and Delphine Strauss details in a new FT series of reports on health at work.
The solutions here aren’t that deep. Things cost money, and the absence of funds makes things work less well. The NHS is deliberately designed to not have all that much redundancy in it — even in periods when the NHS is receiving similar amounts of money as peer countries, it has fewer beds per capita, for instance — and so it makes it harder for it to absorb these pressures.
You can change how the NHS works to prioritise different things, but such measures don’t, in the here and now, offer you much comfort if you are a government that is looking to be re-elected in 2024 or early 2025. Jeremy Hunt’s review into NHS efficiency is a good move in terms of policy, but not really one that anyone expects to have made any dent in terms of the political problem.
Of course, the big political challenge can actually be best understood with reference to this chart, showing growing waits for looked-after children to be placed with families.
No one wants this. We know that, essentially, every child that the state successfully moves from the care of the local authority to that of a family has better life chances and, cynically, costs the state a lot less in the long run.
Why has it happened? Well, in part because we’ve had a prolonged period in which the government was trying to cut spending but didn’t really have a particularly sophisticated plan to shrink the state. There’s not a big overarching intellectual theory that you can apply to what the Conservatives have or haven’t stopped funding since 2010. Instead, there is an electoral theory of cutting state spending, which is why so many of the cuts have ended up falling on local government.
Now there are broadly two schools of thought in the Tory party on this. First, best embodied by Kemi Badenoch, who ran for the Conservative leadership before ultimately backing Rishi Sunak, is the problem that the UK state is still doing things it shouldn’t be doing. But instead of stepping back from whole areas it is just doing an awful lot of things incredibly badly.
Second, best embodied by Jeremy Hunt, who ran for the Conservative leadership before ultimately backing Rishi Sunak, is that there are really good electoral reasons why the Conservative party does these things and that the party needs to prioritise getting the big-ticket items of health and education functioning as well as possible if it is going to survive and thrive.
Readers with good memories won’t need to guess which one of these schools of thought I think is right: it’s Jeremy Hunt. But if the Tories lose the next election, no one inside the Conservative party is going to be able get much of a hearing for the idea that had it not been for Hunt’s autumn statement things would have been much worse. Badenochism, for lack for a better word, will be the ascendant ideology in the party, unless Rishi Sunak surprises almost everyone in Westminster by winning the next election.
Now try this
I saw Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery at the cinema this weekend. It was alright: I enjoyed it, as did most people at the crowded cinema I saw it at. It wasn’t anywhere near as good as Knives Out, but as pleasant-but-forgettable sequels go it wasn’t too bad.
Given the full cinema, how well the original did in cinemas in 2019, and that this is very much a fun flick that’s best enjoyed on a large screen in the company of a big audience, it seems something of a shame that Netflix has restricted the number of screenings to a very low level. I can’t say I think it’s really good enough to be worth watching at home, not least when the original Knives Out is also on Netflix too.
Top stories today
Fuel for thought | Rishi Sunak has authorised an £18mn information campaign to persuade the British public to save energy ahead of the cold winter months. Technical advice includes measures such as draught-proofing windows, turning down radiators in empty rooms and reducing boiler temperatures.
House-buying chill sets in | Housing demand in the UK has almost halved in the wake of Liz Truss’s September “mini” Budget, as home hunters respond to higher mortgage rates by scrapping plans to buy and turning to the rental market instead.
Shanghai police ‘beat’ BBC journalist | Ed Lawrence, a BBC journalist and camera operator, was “beaten and kicked” while under arrest after attempting to film anti-lockdown protests in Shanghai over the weekend, the broadcaster said in a statement today.
Outbreaks at Manston | Concerns have been raised about the spread of diphtheria among Channel migrants after reports that dozens have come down with the highly contagious disease after being held at the Manston detention centre in Kent.
Rayner: Time to ‘come clean’ | UK ministers will this week face questions from the opposition Labour party about the fitness of PPE Medpro — a company linked to Tory peer Baroness Michelle Mone — to receive big public contracts and about its tax record.
Recommended newsletters for you
The Week Ahead — Start every week with a preview of what’s on the agenda. Sign up here
Britain after Brexit — Keep up to date with the latest developments as the UK economy adjusts to life outside the EU. Sign up here