It's like the crucial moment in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American. The US agent stares at the blood on his shoes, unable to make the connection between the explosion he commissioned and the bodies scattered across the public square in Saigon. In leaked correspondence with the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council (which covers his own constituency), David Cameron expresses his horror at the cuts being made to local services. This is the point at which you realise that he has no conception of what he has done.
The letters were sent in September, but came to light only on Friday, when they were revealed by the Oxford Mail. The national media has been remarkably slow to pick the story up, given the insight it offers into the Prime Minister's detachment from the consequences of his actions.
Cameron complains that he is "disappointed" by the council's proposals "to make significant cuts to frontline services — from elderly day centres, to libraries, to museums. This is in addition to the unwelcome and counter-productive proposals to close children's centres across the county." Why, he asked, has Oxfordshire not focused instead on "making back-office savings"? Why hasn't it sold off its surplus property? After all, there has been only "a slight fall in government grants in cash terms". Couldn't the county "generate savings in a more creative manner"?
Explaining the issue gently, as if to a slow learner, the council leader, Ian Hudspeth, points out that the council has already culled its back-office functions, slashing 40% of its most senior staff and 2,800 jobs in total, with the result that it now spends less on these roles than most other counties. He explains that he has already flogged all the property he can lay hands on, but would like to remind the prime minister that using the income from these sales to pay for the council's running costs "is neither legal, nor sustainable in the long-term since they are one-off receipts."
As for Cameron's claim about government grants, Ian Hudspeth comments, "I cannot accept your description of a drop in funding of £72 million or 37% as a 'slight fall'." Again and again, he exposes the figures the Prime Minister uses as wildly wrong. For example, Cameron claims that the cumulative cuts in the county since 2010 amount to £204 million. But that is not the cumulative figure; it is the annual figure. Since 2010, the county has had to save £626 million. It has done so while taking on new responsibilities, and while the population of elderly people and the number of children in the social care system have boomed. Now there is nothing left to cut except frontline services.
Have you ever wondered how the prime minister sleeps at night? How can he live with himself after imposing such gratuitous pain upon the people of this nation? Well now, it seems, you have your answer. He appears to be blissfully unaware of the impact of his own policies.
Cameron's letter seems to confirm the warnings issued by the national audit office a year ago: that the government had only a "limited understanding" of the savings local authorities have to make. It blithely assumed that councils could make their savings through restructuring, without discovering whether or not that was true. It failed to assess their budgets as a whole, overlooking, for example, the funding of libraries and youth services, about which David Cameron's letter complains. No wonder he hasn't the faintest idea what is going on.
It's worth remembering that Oxfordshire, which run by Conservatives, is among the wealthiest counties in England, with the nation's lowest level of unemployment. In common with every aspect of austerity, the cuts have fallen hardest on those least able to weather them: local authorities in the most deprived parts of the country. As a report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation discovered, the cuts in some areas are so extreme that local authority provision is now being reduced to little more than social care, child protection and other core services, while the budgets for libraries, museums, galleries, sports facilities, small parks and playgrounds, children's centres, youth clubs, after-school and holiday clubs, planning and environmental quality have already been slashed to the point at which they can barely function.
In July, the Financial Times revealed that the funding for children's centres across England has been cut by 28% in just three years: is David Cameron unaware of this? As for public protection, it is all but gone. Visits to workplaces by health and safety inspectors have fallen by 91% in four years, and have been abandoned altogether by 53 local authorities. If you want to endanger your workers, don't mind us. You begin to see how the government's agendas mesh. Now, as there is nothing else left to cut, the attack turns to social care, with untold consequences for children, the elderly and people with mental health problems.
And we are only halfway through the government's elective, unwarranted austerity programme. The spending review this month will demand even greater cuts from budgets that have already been comprehensively flensed. How will this be possible without dismantling the basic functions of the state?
The government justifies its austerity programme on the grounds of responsibility. People must take responsibility for their own lives, rather than relying on the state. Local authorities must take responsibility for their spending. But, as David Cameron's letter shows, he takes no responsibility for his own policies. Like pain, responsibility is to be applied selectively.
Graham Greene's American agent, Alden Pyle, has an "unused face" and a "wide campus gaze". Impervious to other people's suffering, he can think only in abstractions, and edits reality to make it fit the theories in which he has been schooled. Nothing he encounters can change his views, as it passes through this filter before it reaches his brain. "When he saw a dead body he couldn't even see the wounds." Oblivious to the results of his actions, he is "impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance". Oh, hello Prime Minister.