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Opinion

Austerity, Brexit, Covid and the cost of living crisis: The damage 12 years of Tory rule has done to the UK

Conservative power defined by austerity, Brexit, the pandemic and three resignations has left Britain broken and the poorest paying the price, writes Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead.

As Boris Johnson’s premiership finally comes to an end and the embattled Tories seek to find a new leader, calls have been growing for a general election to let the people decide who will be the next prime minister.

With a tempestuous three-year tenure marred by scandal, corruption, lies and U-turns, culminating in the rebellion of his own cabinet, it is easy to pin the country’s current woes on its disgraced departing prime minister.

Though as Labour MP Richard Burgon said as he called for a general election: “It wasn’t one man that created record foodbank use, ripped apart our public services and handed out dodgy contracts to the super-rich.”

Rather than one incompetent leader, 12 years of Tory rule has left Britain broken, with one in five citizens now living in poverty. Here’s a look back at the damage the Conservative party has wrought on working families across the country.

The austerity years 

Following a stalemate general election in 2010, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed the country’s first coalition government since 1945.

Striding into power in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, David Cameron promised a “bold and reforming” government that would “put aside party differences and work hard for the common good”.

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Cameron’s government initiated a harsh programme of austerity, which was sold as a necessary response to the financial crash. Tackling the budget deficit and national debt was the top priority and then-chancellor George Osborne implemented a string of cost-cutting measures in which everyday people bore the brunt.

George Osborne holds the red budget box outside downing street
George Osborne oversaw austerity as chancellor. Image credit: HM Treasury/Flickr

Housing benefit was reduced, councils lost a third of their spending power, child benefit was frozen and family tax credits were amended to save the treasury coffers. Public sector workers saw their pay frozen, spending on public services including the police, courts, schools, hospitals and prisons was reduced, all while corporation tax was cut, as a means, according to Osborne, to stimulate business activity and “balance the books”.

Warnings about the cruel policy were made at the time. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said the chancellor’s austerity programme would cause a 10 per cent drop in family living standards. A study by the IFS concluded that the strategy would result in rising child poverty and greater inequality.

“Welfare cuts and tax rises will act to reduce household incomes, and those with the lowest incomes are clearly set to lose the most from these reforms as a percentage of income (with the important exception of those with the very highest incomes). This is likely to increase poverty, other things being equal, offsetting some of the falls in poverty over the past decade,” said the IFS. 

More than a decade after austerity was introduced, numerous studies show the exact social and economic consequences of the cuts.

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The NHS, for example, has suffered the leanest years in its history, leading to a rise in waiting lists and operation delays, well before the pandemic. Describing the impact years of “economic mismanagement” has had on the NHS, Dr John Puntis, co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public, said: “The NHS is now facing its biggest crisis ever, with underfunding, 110,000 staff vacancies, bed cuts, ambulance services collapsing, record high waiting lists now over six million, and a massive maintenance backlog of around £9 million. 

“With life expectancy stalled and poverty and inequality increasing, population health continues to suffer from the adverse effects of overall economic mismanagement.”

Social care organisations speak of how austerity measures have made it increasingly difficult for older people and the disabled to gain state-funded support. Three years after Cameron’s government came into power, Age UK said that, in real terms, £710m had been cut from social care spending, largely because of the cutting of local authority budgets. The Association of Directors of Adult and Social Services (ADASS) said that with budgets down by as much as a fifth, vulnerable people were being affected, with some people getting no care support at all.  

Research from Imperial College shows that life expectancy has fallen since 2010 in the poorest areas of Newcastle, Blackpool, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. The Sir Michael Marmot review found that in 2020, largely due to the impact of cuts linked to the government’s austerity policies, life expectancy had stalled for the first time in more than 100 years, and the gap in health inequalities had widened.

In its ‘The true cost of austerity and inequality: UK case study’, Oxfam notes how economic stagnation, the rising cost of living, cuts to social security and public incomes and rising unemployment have combined to create a “deeply damaging situation in which millions are struggling to make ends meet”.

According to this year’s annual living standards audit from the Resolution Foundation, only Bulgaria is more unequal than the UK when it comes to income inequality. 

Meanwhile, progress on reducing NHS waiting time inequality in Scotland has been reversed due to austerity, according to the Royal Society of Medicine.

Aside from the programme of austerity, Cameron’s biggest legacy was his decision to call the EU referendum, billed as one of the greatest gambles in political history. Canvassing for the Remain side, Cameron announced his resignation within hours of the Leave result.

Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, promised to protect families who were “just about managing” or ‘JAMS’ as they became known. But analysis by the TUC in 2019 showed that families who were just about managing to get by financially had been pushed £2,000 into the red since May was made prime minister.

Brexit’s impact on living standards and poverty 

May’s failure to impress bickering MPs with a post-Brexit plan ultimately led to her downfall, and she was replaced by Boris Johnson in the summer of 2019. 

Following an election win against Jeremy Corbyn in which Johnson promised to “get Brexit done”, the UK finally left the EU In early 2020. A far cry from the “opportunity and prosperity” Johnson promised, evidence is mounting that Brexit is having a detrimental impact on living standards. 

Research shows Britain’s cost of living crisis is being made worse by Brexit. The Resolution Foundation says that by dragging down the nation’s growth potential, the average worker in the UK is on course to suffer over £470 in lost pay each year by 2030 after rising living costs are accounted for, compared with what would have followed if we had not voted to leave the EU.

The Resolution Foundation and the London School of Economics’ Big Brexit report says the “long-lasting legacy” of the UK’s departure from the EU is likely to be slower wage and productivity growth over the next decade. “Workers across most sectors and all regions should expect further real wage hits as the economy continues to adjust to Brexit,” the report concludes. 

One of the biggest challenges facing households during the current cost of living crisis is rising food prices. A recent report from the UK in a Changing Europe think tank found that new trade barriers as a result of Brexit caused a six per cent rise in food prices in Britain between the end of 2019 and September 2021, compared to the three years before December 2019.

Covid-19 

Boris had barely “got Brexit done” when the Covid-19 pandemic shook the world at the start of 2020. The UK government was criticised for “moving too slowly” and hoping to rely on herd immunity.

With one of the highest Covid death tolls in Europe, the British Medical Journal said the UK’s response to the pandemic was neither well prepared nor remotely adequate, being “too little, too late, too flawed.”

The devastating impact of Tory austerity resurfaced during the pandemic, with years of spending cuts and deepening inequality meaning Britain was ill-prepared when a virus as deadly as Covid-19 struck.

When asked why England had Europe’s worst Covid figures, Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology at University Collection London and director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity, said: “The answer starts with austerity.”

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Health officials and epidemiologists also say the UK’s strategy for combating Covid-19 was muddled. This led to delays in purchasing essential equipment, tests and confused messages about public health practices.

A report by the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees says the government’s failure to do more to stop the virus spreading early in the pandemic, is one of Britain’s worst public health failures. The report found that the delay in introducing the first lockdown cost thousands of lives.

Similarly, the easing of restrictions, widely heralded as “freedom day” by its advocates, were sharply criticised by many public health and scientific health experts.

Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association’s Public Health Medicine Committee, said: “There is absolutely no justification for relaxing restrictions now.

“If anything, they should be tightened, at least until the increase in case rates has reversed.”

Analysis by Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England found that eight in 10 families on low-incomes faced significant drop to living standards, with many losing their jobs and seeing a decrease in income during the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, the government insisted on awarding Covid contracts to Tory-linked firms.

In October 2021, Labour revealed £3.5bn worth of Covid contracts to companies with links to the Conservative Party. In response to the findings, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Even as the government is hitting working families with an unfair tax hike and household bills are soaring, the Conservatives continue to give billions of pounds out to their friends and donors.”

A flood of scandal and sleaze involving the Tories followed the pandemic. Former health secretary Matt Hancock resigned for breaking social distancing rules – which he put in place – by having an affair with a colleague. Johnson and Rishi Sunak were fined for attending law-breaking parties during lockdown, part of the infamous ‘Partygate’ scandal. 

While the Tories continued to feud over Partygate and Johnson’s tenure, the country edged deeper into economic turmoil.

Cost of living crisis 

The cost of living crisis is putting a huge financial strain on families, many who are having to choose between heating their homes or putting food on the table. Rather than providing households with the financial support they desperately need, the Conservative government is accused of doing very little to help. 

Criticising the government for putting up national insurance contributions for working people as inflation spirals out of control, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the “Tories don’t have an answer to the cost of living crisis, because they are the crisis”. 

Tory minister George Eustice even suggested the solution for people struggling to pay for rocketing food costs amid the crisis was to merely buy cheaper brands. Meanwhile, Tory MP Katherine Fletcher was labelled “callous” after suggesting families facing hardship are “sitting on benefits” and “should get a job.”  

Boris Johnson is finally going, but 12 years of brutal Tory rule and policies has inflicted years of pain, with the most vulnerable paying the price. Facing challenges on a scale not seen since the Second World War, it’s not just a new prime minister the country needs, but an entirely new government.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist. @GabsP78

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