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Saturday, June 19, 2010

They reckon we've never had it so bad by Mark Steel

                                                                            Mark Steel

How long will this government keep their trick going, of announcing every few days: "Oh my goodness, the books are even worse than we thought. It turns out Alistair Darling left a whole year's VAT on a bus. But he didn't put it on the accounts thingy so never mind, we'll just have to make even more cuts I suppose"? The day before the budget George Osborne will make a statement that: "This morning I had a call from Blockbusters, and they informed me that Jack Straw neglected to pay the late return fee on Call of Duty, a game he took out for use on his Xbox. As a result the Treasury owes £4m more than was previously believed to be the case, which makes it a necessity that we sell off the Post Office."

They could keep it going for years, telling us before the 2013 Budget that they've just discovered Margaret Beckett was a junkie and secretly sold off the M4 as far as Bristol to pay for her habit, so now they'll have to scrap the fire service. Or they were told there was some money in a Co-op account, but when they went to draw it out to pay the army, the lady behind the counter said John Prescott had already taken it and spent it all on crisps.

Every commentator on almost every programme informs us every day that the deficit is so awful we have to make unprecedented cuts, so it wouldn't be surprising if the World Cup panellists said: "England's back four can't be expected to keep their shape while there's a record £1.7 trillion debt on their minds, Gary. If we don't take immediate measures to get that down they're bound to get caught out of position."

For example, a poll in this week's Sunday Times asked whether you agree or disagree that the government could save money by "eliminating unnecessary non-jobs in the public sector". As if anyone would say: "No – we must keep those unnecessary non-jobs. They're vital to us all." You might as well have the headline: "Public supports austerity measures. An overwhelming majority answered 'yes' to the question, 'Do you agree people who do nothing, I mean nothing, except smoke dope and torture mice out of boredom, should be funded by you personally by having to sell your child to a cockle-picking gang'?"

But the government is obviously concerned that when the actual cuts are announced, that consensus might crack. So at the moment they're still being vague about what they're planning, and carry on telling us they're going to scrap "waste". But if there was a genuine pile of waste that could save billions if it was scrapped, they could be more specific, couldn't they? And say: "We've found a whole office in the Department of Transport dedicated to memorising the scripts of Last of the Summer Wine. They're all on fifty grand a week as well. It was set up by Harold Wilson apparently, when he was going a bit funny, so that's a start."

They seem to realise that, when they announce which areas will be cut, it doesn't sound so convincing that we're all in it together. For example they've cancelled plans to extend free school dinners for children from poorer backgrounds, which affects everyone equally, I suppose, as without studying the figures, who can say whether Cameron and Osborne's family would qualify for that payment? One group that might just escape that category are the richest 1,000 people in Britain whose wealth, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, has increased by 30 per cent in the last year. That amounts to £77bn, or half the entire annual deficit.

So they could contribute perhaps. But more likely is the government's plan to get people to accept massive cuts in public services as unavoidable, then happily watch people squabble over if it should be someone else battered rather than them. Eventually it will turn out the books are so bad they have to make each service appear on a television show and plead to be saved by public vote, with a tense announcement at the end by Graham Norton that "only one of you will be here next week and that is... disability benefit. Sorry, social services, you've got to go now, but you've been a great contestant. Byeeee".

First published in The Independent on 16th June 2010

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