During the general election campaign, Theresa May became increasingly fond of reminding us all about the “magic money tree” and the lack thereof.
Initially it seemed the prime minister’s use of this hackneyed truism had been unscripted, an off-the-cuff remark. Before too long, however, it became depressingly apparent that it was actually one of the key messages of the Tory campaign – a mantra dreamed up by party HQ to be deployed over and over again.
It appeared to sneer at an electorate too thick to understand why public services cannot be properly funded.
Let me put this in language you’ll understand, it seemed to say, money doesn’t grow on trees.
Yet little more than two weeks after her narrow victory, the prime minister was able to find £1 billion for the DUP as part of a deal which allows her to cling to power. While shoring up her position in the short term, it is an agreement which could ultimately prove Mrs May’s undoing and finally gave lie to the financial imperative for continued austerity.
If taxpayers’ cash can be used to prop up a minority Tory government, then surely it can also be used to help fix our ailing health service and address public sector pay.
In a memorable cartoon by Peter Brookes, published last week, Mrs May is depicted serving gruel to overweight Orangemen as emaciated public sector workers extend the begging bowl and ask for more.
But while there has been plenty of criticism of the DUP deal, it seems it has, at the very least, re-started the debate on pay. Under the current cap, workers who have their wages set by the
UK government have been subject to 1 per cent annual awards since 2012, with inflation currently close to 3 per cent.
While Downing Street is holding firm for now, there are signs of growing disquiet on the front benches.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is apparently among those in favour of paying more, while Nick Hurd, a policing minister, told MPs the issue was “under active discussion”.
Yesterday, the Scottish Government’s finance minister, Derek Mackay, wrote to Chancellor Philip Hammond urging him to scrap the pay cap and bring to an end “unnecessary and ideological” austerity.
Seizing his opportunity, Mr Mackay announced the Scottish Government will end the 1 per cent cap north of the Border in 2018-19.
That will be welcome news for police officers and other emergency service workers currently labouring under exactly the same pay constraints as their colleagues in England and Wales.
That it took a humbling of the SNP at the ballot box and a near disaster for the Tories for this to happen, is an indictment of our politics.
For too long our nurses, police and teachers have borne the brunt of an austerity which resulted from a financial crash in which they played no part.
Cuts to public services have compounded the situation, forcing key workers to do more while their pay shrinks in real terms.
In policing, officers face dealing with an unprecedented terror threat and an increasingly difficult job of keeping the public safe while finding it harder to provide for their families.
There may be no magic money tree to begin addressing these issues, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.