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Thursday, November 12, 2015 

Cameron has always been the PR man. Osborne isn't.

The much commented on, if not as widely reported exchange of letters between David Cameron and Oxfordshire council leader Ian Hudspeth is unquestionably brilliant.  It's not often a prime minister is treated like an especially boneheaded teenager might be by an exasperated teacher, with Hudspeth having to explain one more time exactly why it is that he cannot follow the "best practice" of other Conservative councils as Dave suggests.  Oxfordshire has already made back office savings, dispensed with "surplus assets", cut everything other than social care.  Spending has not increased, Hudspeth makes clear, and the council has not cut only a mere £242m so far.  £242m was not a cumulative figure, as Dave wrote, the cumulative figure in fact being £626m.

As Rick says, the prime minister's advice is the equivalent of a quack applying more leeches to a dying patient.  He seems to believe the same solutions as were proposed back in 2010 are still valid now.  He's far from alone in this of course, with Theresa May crowing about how the cuts to the police have proved once and for all that more can be done with less, at the same time as forces consider sponsorship deals to bring in cash and as residents in rural areas are employing private security to patrol.  Just today the sports minister Tracey Crouch advised people having difficulties making ends meet to cancel their Sky subscriptions.  Some doubtless would regard giving up Sky as a breach of their fundamental human rights, but the idea many living on the breadline, relying on food banks or worrying about cuts to their tax credits are paying their dues to Rupert Murdoch doesn't fly.  Many of those people would be in an even worse position if they couldn't access the internet, something satellite and cable providers also happen to provide.

While some in the government might be oblivious or ignorant as to exactly what it is they're asking of both their colleagues at the local level and of the very people they've been elected to represent, there's also those who are very much aware.  George Osborne for instance, who earlier in the week celebrated those departments that have already outlined the amount they can save two weeks ahead of his comprehensive spending review.  Should his attempt to cut tax credits be scuppered or the amount due to be saved fall in the effort to soften the blow, that money will have to be found elsewhere.  With the triple-lock on pensions, all the ring-fenced departments and tax rises verboten, although not as a result of the public being opposed as Ken Clarke claims, rather due to politicians refusing to make the political case for doing so, the only areas left to target are those cut to the bone already.

Indeed, the "impossible constraints" Clarke talked about are entirely of Osborne's own devising.  Running a surplus is a choice, rather than an imperative central to our economic security as the chancellor claims.  As the Guardian's leader today argues, it's true Osborne is not the crude neo-Thatcherite as he is sometimes painted.  He has been more flexible than that, and has stolen Labour and Liberal Democrat policies when it's suited him.  He has also though presided over a hollowing out of the state, to the point where it looks to be perilously close to collapsing in on itself.  Hudspeth is far from the only council leader worrying about where it is he's going to make further savings from, not least when raising council tax above 2% requires a local referendum to be held.  Asking for cuts of 30% on top of a reduction in funding which has amounted to 37% so far, according to the National Audit Office, can mean the only place left to make savings is by cutting the frontline.  So far, in part thanks to how Labour did "fix the roof while the sun was shining", most services have held together.  You wouldn't bet on the same being the case come 2020.

Rest assured however that as the NAO report also found, the Department for Communities and Local Government is on the case.  The DCLG in their words has a "a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities and the extent to which they may be at risk of financial failure" and also "does not monitor the impact of funding reductions on services in a coordinated way."  Like the prime minister, they haven't got a clue.  Still, by 2020 all things going well Osborne will be our new overlord, primed and ready to explain why absolutely nothing is his or the Tories' fault.

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