David Blackburn

Cameron’s public service reforms are still stuck in New Labour’s intellectual territory

Cameron’s public service reforms are still stuck in New Labour’s intellectual territory
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The man known to the Cameroons as ‘The Master’ casts a long shadow. David Cameron has re-launched his public service reform agenda and there was more of a whiff of Blair in the air.

His speech was understated. He eschewed references to radicalism and appealed to continuity instead. The favoured phrase of the moment is ‘evolution not revolution’, and Cameron traced the lineage of his reforms to those of the thwarted Blair administration (and the market reforms of the Thatcher and Major years). He was so deep in New Labour’s intellectual territory that he was at pains to stress that the ‘spending taps have not been turned off’. As a result of systemic reform and competition, he said, health spending will reach the EU average – an unrealised ambition of Blair’s – and per-head expenditure on pupils will reach £5,000 per annum, matching German spending. Cameron never mentioned Blair by name, but his repetition of ‘modernity, necessity and renewal’ was an eerily familiar mantra.

Essentially, Cameron is intent on regaining control of the reform narrative. As Martin Bright noted last week, opponents have characterised planned public service reforms as ideologically motivated, a veil for ‘swingeing spending reductions’. Cameron acknowledges that his government must stand for more than deficit reduction; therefore, he is seeking to uncouple cuts from reform. Equally, reform cannot be termed radical, as that would suggest that an overt ideological impulse was at its heart.

So he adopted tepid rhetoric and an apologetic tone. However, handing over £80bn to GPs and allowing schools to self-govern are radical reforms and the government is being disingenuous to claim otherwise. Perhaps it is being foolhardy also. Entrenching its argument in the destitute intellectual framework of the last decade (that spending is an end itself) is at odds with its entire economic agenda. That has very definite political consequences: policing is imperilled, but prophylactics are protected. That said, the Cameroons made a political calculation long ago: in the public mind at least, the NHS is Britain’s national religion and Labour’s property. Fate will look unkindly on those who cut it.