With British election near, surveys give Conservatives wide lead as more trusted to run economy
LONDON — After enduring five years of some of the deepest spending cuts in Britain's modern history — with budgets for police, the arts and early-childhood development slashed — voters have the chance to ease the pain as the economy recovers.
But rather than pull back on austerity, the famously ascetic British appear ready to double down.
Although polls show that the Conservative Party — one of the two partners in the governing coalition — and its main opposition, Labor, remain locked in a dead heat with just over a month to go before the next general election, surveys give the Conservatives a wide lead on the question of who is trusted to run the economy.
And the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, have made no secret that their economic agenda for a second term looks much the same as the first. They plan to plunge the knife even deeper in areas where defenders say the cuts long ago stopped stripping away fat and began to strike bone.
The public's willingness to go along with at least several more years of austerity, even as Britain's overall economic picture brightens, reflects just how heavily the hangover of the global financial crisis continues to be felt in this country. Nearly eight years after the descent began, voters remain scarred by the prospect of a national treasury bled dry by rampant government spending.
“The general economic approach of ‘We need to bring down spending' is something that voters of all colors have bought into,” said Joe Twyman, head of political and social research at the polling firm YouGov. “There's a recognition that we just spent too much money.”
The antidote, first pitched by Cameron during his winning 2010 campaign, was to dramatically scale back. Governments across Europe did the same as German-style fiscal rectitude came to be seen as a cure-all for a boom-years binge.
After years of severe cuts, countries in southern Europe appear to be rejecting the medicine, with a radical leftist party winning election in Greece in January on a platform of ending austerity and another vying to do the same in Spain in a vote due this year.
But in Britain, where the cuts have been deep by national historical standards but relatively mild compared with southern Europe's, there is no sign of a widespread backlash.
Even the Labor Party, which has branded Cameron's plans for additional cuts “extreme,” has said it will not reverse austerity measures already enacted and in fact will continue to trim — just not as aggressively as the Conservatives.
“Labor doesn't want to give the Conservatives a stick with which to beat them,” Twyman said. “In Britain, we just don't have an effective, popular anti-austerity party.”
That's despite the fact that many economists question the wisdom of continuing to cut rather than borrow at a time when interest rates remain exceptionally low and the recovery is still fragile.
In a survey of leading British economists conducted last month by the Center for Macroeconomics, a substantial majority said the government's austerity-focused policies have hurt the recovery rather than helped.