For some time now, I have noted with interest what happens when politicians who are on the economic right within British politics and who also happen to favour Brexit find those two things clashing with one another. Without exception, the desire for Brexit wins. A great example was during the Greek debt crisis of 2015, when politicians such as Douglas Carswell suddenly started sticking up for Syriza – the argument for fiscal prudence, so strong in any other circumstance, fell by the wayside when the chance to blame everything on the European Union presented itself.
This week, we’ve had the sort of ne plus ultra version of this, with John Redwood claiming in an extraordinary article in The Guardian that “The end of British austerity begins with Brexit“. As an obsessive viewer of politics, I was under the impression that no manoeuvre could be cynical enough to shock me – but the Redwood article had me laughing out loud with incredulity.
First of all, the article is based on a fallacy – that £10 billion of extra tax funds would be sloshing around the system if we voted to Leave – but that isn’t what gets me. Let’s take the £10 billion as read for now, just for the sake of underlining how profound Redwood’s hypocrisy is here. In the piece, he lays out a post-Brexit social democratic wonderland of public spending largesse: £1.1 billion to avoid disability benefit cuts; £800 million for 60,000 more NHS nurses; £800 million to get rid of nurses’ loans and make them grants; £750 million for social care; and best of all:
“There should be £150m more to help people with social housing caught by the spare room subsidy or bedroom tax, so they can continue in their present homes.”
Yes, John Redwood actually used the word “bedroom tax” in an article. I suppose I should explain here, for those of you unaware of the Rt Hon Redwood’s political positioning and associations, his particular views regarding austerity and taxation. He is the chair of an organisation called No Turning Back, a position Redwood has held since 2005. The entire purpose of this pressure group within the Conservative Party is to argue for lower public spending coupled with tax breaks. If you want to understand their essence, this line from one of their press releases says it all:
…”allowing public spending to grow less rapidly than overall economic growth would enable taxes to be cut by between £20 billion and £30 billion over the life of a parliament.”
So John Redwood is the chair of an organisation that, far from thinking that the government since 2010 has been too austere, directly argues that it has been nowhere near austere enough, thinking it should cut public spending enough to slash taxes. In other words, if Redwood were prime minister he wouldn’t be stressing out about how to fill the £30 billion hole in the budget that keeps Osborne up at night – he’d be merrily cutting between £35 and £40 billion and handing the difference involved back to tax payers.
Now, that’s Redwood’s politics and you can agree or disagree with his views on shrinking the state. But he cannot spend most of his parliamentary career arguing for smaller government spending and then decide one day to paint himself as Captain Social Democrat all because it fits neatly into why people might vote to leave the EU.
The biggest problem I’ve always had with small state Conservatives suddenly becoming all Corbyn-like when it suits the Breixt narrative is this: if they believe so passionately that we should be out of the European Union, and likewise believe that the state should be much smaller, why can they never seem to find a way to combine these two things effectively into a compelling political narrative? Why do they seem to always find themselves having to call for higher government spending when it comes to why we should supposedly leave?
The idea that if we could save £1.1 billion from anything the government did John Redwood would want to do anything other than use it to cut taxes makes no sense against everything he has ever fought for in his political life. But like I said at the top, Brexit trumps everything with these guys. Be wary, folks.