Rarely have British national politics looked so beset by internal strife.
For a start, many Labour and Conservative MPs do not support their current leader. Labour has managed a plausible display of confidence and coherence in Brighton. But little was said that suggests the party yet has a worked-through policy about devolution. The party is strong in local government. Its many leaders and mayors are at the forefront of current efforts to keep devolution advancing.
The Conservatives, who set off for Manchester this weekend, have done much to get Jeremy Corbyn to within sight of Downing Street. Theresa May’s general election disaster, coupled with cabinet in-fighting about Brexit, have led the party into a period of destructive introspection. The Tories are trapped in power with little capacity to deliver. Devolutionary policies appear becalmed or even slightly in retreat.
On 22 November, the Budget will provide clues about how the impact of Brexit will feed through to tax and spending. Recent borrowing figures were better than expected, however, future economic growth projections will probably be revised down. Together, these indicators suggest little room to let up on expenditure control. The costs of post-Grenfell safety improvements imply a need for the government to find at least some additional resources for councils. Local authorities will not be able to find all the necessary cash.
The Treasury has no fiscal freedom to underwrite the potential costs of Brexit consequences or costs. This reality is in part at the root of Cabinet splits about how and when to leave the EU. For local government, there is a risk ‘austerity’ will continue into the 2020s as Whitehall struggles to balance the books. Any sharp slow-down in the economy would require tax rises or more cuts.
Defence, prisons, the courts service, the police, further education and the core civil service have, like local government, faced disproportionate spending pressure since 2010. There is little potential to reduce budgets in these spheres. The NHS, pensions and schools are largely sacrosanct.
The party conferences have shown little sign that the political class has the capacity to grapple with the scale of the UK’s current problems. Time is running out for them to do so.
Tony Travers, director, LSE London