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No time for ministerial caution as dash for cash begins

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A guest briefing from New Local Government Network director Adam Lent

Let’s face it, the bar is not exactly high. As long as James Brokenshire manages to get out of the hall at the LGA conference tomorrow without offending every member of his audience with his speech, he’ll be ahead of last year’s guy.

Indeed, the temptation must be great to deliver the standard platitudes enlivened only mildly by a minor, tentative policy announcement. After all, isn’t everyone’s mind elsewhere? Didn’t the estimable Andrew Marr dedicate just one minute of his interview with the minister yesterday to his actual brief while giving the other nine over to the government’s Brexit-themed disintegration?

This, however, is no time for caution. Ministers are clearly readying themselves for the race that may be kicked off after dinner at Chequers on Friday but another race is already being run. The starting pistol was fired by the prime minister herself when she announced the £20bn birthday present for the NHS, simultaneously blasting an air-sucking wound into the chancellor’s plans for an orderly spending review next year.

The not entirely unpredictable result is that other ministers are now jostling for their share of the nation’s tax revenues. The home secretary has let it be known that not enough has been done to address the police’s funding shortfall and has pledged to make the issue his priority. While the defence secretary has gone nuclear, threatening to bring down the government while unleashing the royal family unless he gets a birthday present just as good as big brother Jeremy.

As is the way with this fractious government, none of this is happening quietly behind the scenes. Sajid Javid announced his uncharacteristic sympathy for public sector professionals in his speech to the Police Federation conference. While every manoeuvre in Gavin Williamson’s battle with Number 10 has all the discretion of Love Island beach-wear.

Just today, a letter was conveniently leaked from the US defence secretary stating that France would replace the UK as America’s closest ally unless May shovelled more money the way of the army – Vladimir Putin must be chuckling into his borscht over that one.

There seem to be no prizes these days for playing by the rules and the LGA delegates would doubtless be cheered if they were to discover that their minister recognised that fact. There’s no need to go the full Williamson however. A simple but public recognition that local services matter and that there’s clearly a limit to the punishment they can sustain without irreversible deterioration would send a vital message. The point would only be strengthened by making the obvious argument that spending more money on crisis-led services such as the NHS and police while starving services focused on prevention like social care, housing, economic growth and community is just a tad myopic.

The cause would hardly want for ammunition. Evidence of crisis now emerges weekly. Whether it be more councils facing financial turmoil post-Northamptonshire or new research revealing the unsustainable pressure on core services, the housing and communites secretary has more than enough to throw onto the chancellor’s desk.

Of course, none of this may come easy to James Brokenshire. He strikes one as the decent, honourable sort who insists on sticking to Marquis of Queensbury rules while all around are setting about each other with baseball bats. The problem, however, with such a strategy is that everyone else is likely to walk away with a share of the spoils leaving you with nothing but a very sore head.

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