In the later months in opposition, when I and other economically minded Conservatives were giving advice to Shadow Ministers, we were often told that our tunes would change a year or two into government. Wise Shadow Ministers knowingly explained to us that we might accept the necessity of spending cuts in opposition, but it would be very different in government. You will, they said, be demanding that we cut less and spare the spending. They expected our brave words to vanish like the melting snow.
We are fast approaching the two year mark of the government. What is fascinating is that the position is the very opposite of that predicted by some Shadow Ministers. Many backbench Conservatives are uneasy about public spending, but for the opposite reason. There are a variety of areas where the backbenchers want it cut, where Ministers refuse to co-operate.
Last week-end the unhappiness about taxpayers financing energy subsidies came to the fore. Most Conservatives would like the market to be allowed to operate, to provide more cheaper energy for constituents. Such a policy would spare taxpayers excessive subsidies for windfarms and the like, as well as delivering lower household and business bills. MPs think that is a double win.
Then there is the running sore of overseas aid. Many backbench Conservative MPs want the overseas aid budget to be targetted on the really poor and needy. Many of us are happy to be generous to those in great poverty, but do not think the fast expansion of the current budget is doing that. We pressed for China and India to be dropped from the list of aid recipients in 2010, and the money saved. The government did not agree with us about India. This decision has now come back to bite it, with stories that the Indian government agrees with us backbenchers, and does not want the aid we send.
Many backbenchers would dearly love to see the end of the HS2 project. Some agree with me that it should be deferred whilst we sort out the public accounts. A £33 billion project looks like an extravagance given the state of the budget, and given the running losses the new trains will make when they eventually run. It is true not a lot of money is going to be spent on its this Parliament, but every £750 million helps. It has also become a kind of symbol of how serious people are about controlling spending. Adding such a large new project before the national accounts are anywhere near stabilised looks rash.
Then there is the vexed issue of public sector pensions. The backbenches have been sensible about accepting that MPs pensions, like the rest of the public sector, need to be cut. They have been resolute about the threats to industrial action that have resulted from the government’s plans. The bigger worry for quite a few backbenchers is we are going through the political pain for not enough gain. MPs ask Ministers to stand firm over changes to the higher pensions in the public sector, and were surprised by the concessions already made.
There is the ever present question of the EU. Most Conservative backbenchers favourite spending cut would be a big cut in the EU budget and the UK contribution. Ministers have been reluctant to press this too far. Backbenchers are also worried by the demands to put more money into the IMF. If we are short of money at home, they reason, how come we have all this largesse to give to Euroland and the EU itself? Surely austerity should begin in Brussels, not in my local Council office? As the EU is currently preaching austerity to its members, couldn’t it lead by example and show us how to do it?
It is hard yet to find examples the other way of backbenchers wanting more spent. Partly that is because we have so far had so few cuts, but partly it tells you the mood of the party. They get it. They understand the need to curb spending after a decade when it let rip. Most of us warned and steadied our electors for the cuts. Most of us want the cuts out of the way now, as our appetite for them may well dull nearer the election.
It is true some MPs are concerned about the withdrawal of children related benefits planned soon. However, the worries do not amount to a full scale demand that the policy be cancelled, merely that the government looks again at some of the anomalies which leave the person on lower pay worse off than a couple on jointly higher pay, which seems unfair. Most MPs accept this is an area for savings, but want a different approach to how they are delivered. They would like to see the couple with one parent staying at home and the other higher rate tax payer not disadvantaged compared to the two earner couple with the bigger total income.
Many Conservatives think the defence budget has been cut too much, but there is no move to reinstate extra spending. All this just goes to show that the party, far from in panic at the scale of the cuts is willing the government on to save the billions that are still being borrowed.