Like it or not this will be the Brexit Election: a strange sort of quasi-referendum on the decision made in a previous referendum and everything that has happened since.
But if that’s all this election ends up being about, it will be a dangerous missed opportunity. With courage and honesty from the candidates for the PM’s job, the contest could also be a chance to make some real progress on the crisis gripping our public services.
If Jeremy Corbyn spends the next six weeks blaming all the woes of health and social care on cuts while Theresa May responds with dodgy stats supposedly pointing the finger at under-performing councils and trusts as Philip Hammond drops more cheap digs at a “death tax” then we will know that the opportunity has been ducked. Expect another five years of political heads buried deep in the sand as we get even older as a population and public services deteriorate further.
By contrast, courage and honesty means at least one party leader having the guts to step back from the fray and admit that the crisis is a structural one created by a rapidly ageing population and thus requires bold and potentially difficult solutions. It means telling the voters clearly that with such a major demographic shift underway, we can’t simply muddle through using the odd billion now and then to plaster over the cracks in a structure crumbling under the pressure.
Manifesto commitments are needed that reflect that honesty by adopting tough-minded and far-sighted solutions proposed by reviews such as the Dilnot Commission to solve the social care crisis while also admitting the necessary long-term tax rises needed to fund wider public services facing ever-growing demand. If that is too much honesty at very short notice then manifestoes at least need to commit to a proper consultation early in the new Parliament on how to resolve the challenge with a commitment to implement recommendations before the next election.
None of that rules out also questioning the impact of austerity on public services particularly those delivered by local government which have seen very significant cuts. Nor does it mean simply accepting that every public service and every council is operating at its most efficient and innovative best. Any new settlement on public services will only make sense to the public if they can be convinced that such a settlement is not simply plugging a gap left by cuts or is throwing more money at poor performers than good ones. The parties can rest assured that there is space in this debate for their preferred shtick but it must be one framed by the really big issues of ageing, rising demand and the sustainability of public services over the long term.