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General election 2024: The precarious state of the state

The precarious state of the state: Summary

The true scale and severity of the problems facing the next government.

10 Downing Street in London
Many problems facing the country will require immediate attention from whoever holds the keys to No.10 on 5 July. Almost all will require serious reform over the next parliament.

Most public services are performing worse than before the 2019 election – and far worse than in 2010

  • Hospital performance is arguably the worst in the NHS’s history: waiting times have been the longest on record, and targets for elective care, A&E and cancer treatment have not been met since 2016, and 1.5 million people waited more than 12 hours in A&Es in 2023/24 – more than triple the number in 2019.
  • People are struggling to access general practice, despite more appointments being delivered than ever. The numbers of patients per GP has risen by 18% since 2015. 
  • Prisons are at a crisis point, capacity might well be exceeded soon after the election, forcing further early releases of prisoners and delaying court cases. Despite this, funding is set to fall by 5.9% each year relative to demand in the next parliament.
  • In the last six years, there have been six times the number of section 114 (‘bankruptcy’) notices filed by local authorities than in the previous three decades, forcing cuts to key services. Residents in those areas face rising council tax bills and vastly reduced services such as libraries, waste collection and adult and children’s social care.
  • School performance is the key area in which England has seen improvement, in absolute terms and relative to international comparators.
  • Current spending plans are implausible. They assume further cuts to a criminal justice system that is on its knees, minimal change in schools or local government, and only small increases in a health service which has suffered a decade of insufficient funding.

Stagnating economic growth and historically high levels of both tax and spending leaves little room for manoeuvre

  • Inflation has returned close to the Bank of England target, but economic recovery has been sluggish.
  • Standards of living have fallen since 2019 and will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025. 
  • The pandemic response, among other things, means government debt, tax and spend have increased to higher levels than they’ve been for decades.
  • Fiscal headroom – to spend on public services or government programmes – is tight. Jeremy Hunt has had about a third of the headroom that Conservative Chancellors since 2010 have had.
  • What room for manoeuvre that does exist is predicated on a series of unrealistic assumptions about further cuts to services and departments.

The civil service is strained after years of crisis management 

  • There were cuts of around 20% to civil service headcount from 2010 to 2016. But Brexit and the pandemic led to a major handbrake turn and now, for the first time since 2007, the government employs more than half a million civil servants (FTE). 
  • Turnover of civil servants was at record high in 2021/22, but improved slightly last year. However morale has fallen since 2020 following steady improvement in the 2010s.
  • Attempts to hold down pay have led to grade inflation – promoting more junior staff ahead of time – but this has been self-defeating: if the civil service had the same grade composition as in 2010, the total pay bill would be around £1.6bn lower than now.

Devolution has seen some progress in recent years, particularly in England, but the long-term future of the Union remains uncertain

  • Despite successes in devolving power and resources away from Westminster, many major cities outside of London are still much less productive than their international comparators. The Greater Manchester and the West Midlands regions are both more than 10% below the national productivity average, despite being home to some of England’s largest cities by population.
  • There are now 12 metro mayors representing almost 50% of the population, but more progress is needed to complete the map of English devolution. More difficult decisions are yet to come for rural areas and those with a less coherent economic geography. 
  • For devolution to support regional growth in England the right policies and responsibilities need to sit at the right level. Many are not – including employment support and strategic spatial planning, both missing from the existing trailblazer devolution deals. 
  • Future of the Union remains a live debate – support for Scottish independence hovers around 50% and an increasing number people in Northern Ireland favour Irish reunification.
  • Relations between the UK and devolved governments have worsened since 2016, particularly as a response to Brexit and the handling of the pandemic.

General election 2024

The next UK general election will be held on Thursday 4 July. Our analysis, explainers and events explore what happens before and during an election, how political parties and the civil service prepare for the outcome and what it means for government.

Find out more
Prime minister Rishi Sunak issues a statement outside 10 Downing Street, London, after calling a general election for 4 July.

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