Just what is the essential difference between our two main political parties? Certainly not their respective attitudes towards fiscal prudence; the thing which used to provide clear blue water between the two. Now we have two parties which don’t give a damn about public debt, who think that they can spend willy-nilly and that something, somehow will come round and save them in the end.
No, the message of today’s spending review is that the Conservatives and Labour are entrenching their respective positions as the representatives of two tribes: private sector workers and public sector ones.
We all know there’s bad news on the horizon in the shape of tax rises and, inevitably at some point, spending cuts. But why make such a show of announcing that public sector pay will be frozen next year with the exception of doctors, nurses and anyone earning under £24,000 a year?
And why up the stakes by saying that while public sector workers have seen their pay rise by four per cent this year, private sector staff have seen it fall by one per cent?
It is tempting to believe that this was a deliberate political pitch by Sunak to put himself on the side of private sector workers, who may feel aggrieved at the way their public sector counterparts have been allowed to ride through the Covid crisis with secure salaries and pensions, while they themselves have suffered unemployment, uncertainty and collapsing pension funds.
If it was deliberate, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds certainly fell for the bait. She led her response by accusing the Tories of slighting the efforts of public sector keyworkers whom, she said, had led the way through this crisis. The economy, she implied, could only function if firefighters, teachers and police officers had extra money in their pockets to spend in the shops. If you are a modestly-paid lorry driver, supermarket worker or private care home worker – still less if you have lost your livelihood because your business has been forced to close for much of this year – you would have had every right to feel irritated by Labour’s kneejerk reaction always to stand up for public sector unions and their pay demands.
Trouble is, that while Sunak’s spending review could not be better calculated to irk the union barons, there was precious in it for the low-paid, for gig workers in service industries, for the self-employed and for business-owners either, unless they happen to work in a business which might possibly benefit from the latest promise for more infrastructure spending.
Sunak may be a lot chirpier than his Eeyore-like predecessor-but-one, Philip Hammond. But if his spending review has succeeded in cheering anyone up, I can’t quite imagine who they are. For an event which was supposed to carry good news (spending increases) without the bad news (tax rises to pay for them) it was a strangely depressing day all round.